TAMWORTH — Like the recent Mindy Kaling movie “Late Night,” Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” is a dramedy about the serious business of writing comedy for television. But luckily for the audiences coming to see the Barnstormers Theatre’s second production of the season, unlike the former, much of the latter is actually funny. As Simon’s Borscht Belt-era characters might say with a smirk and a shrug, “Go figure.”
That’s because we’re talking Neil Simon, from whose typewriter such witty gems as “The Odd Couple,” “The Sunshine Boys” and “Plaza Suite” flowed. Even in his so-so scripts (“Chapter Two” or “The Heartbreak Kid”), Simon, who died last year at age 91, could still school just about any other comic playwright.
“Laughter” is hardly a so-so script, though it is drenched in period references. From Red Scare-era jokes — “Did you hear about Stalin?” “What, did McCarthy put him on the blacklist?”— to throwaway lines like “Remember, there’s only three networks,” you never forget “Laughter” is set in the decade when Simon, then a junior talent, honed his chops on Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows.”
And while each Barnstormer cast member brings his or her own special polish to their roles, it’s fun to note that Lucas Brickman is Neil Simon’s alter ego, Kenny Franks is based on Larry Gelbart (creator of “M*A*S*H”), Carol Wyman is based on Selma Diamond (star of TV sitcom “Night Court”) and Ira Stone is none other than Mel Brooks (“Blazing Saddles,” “The Producers”). Max Prince, of course, is Simon’s take on Caesar.)
Bringing to life a period piece is something the talented Barnstormers cast and crew excel at. From the set and props with their wooden desk chairs and rotary phones to the generous Fifties cut of the pleated trousers, the audience quickly is immersed in a mid-century world.
And although the set never changes, the writing and acting are so good, you never feel stifled or claustrophobic. That’s because director Blair Hundertmark generally keeps things ticking along, and his ensemble players swoop in with one-liners so fast and thick, you’ll have to be listening carefully to catch every one.
About that title: The “23rd Floor” stands for a “30 Rock”-type comedy writers’ aerie high above midtown Manhattan. The basic plot — and it’s very basic, really just an excuse to let a bunch of one-liner-spouting actors loose on stage — is that NBC is getting ready to pull the plug on Max Prince’s Carol Burnett-like sketch comedy show, for which most of the characters serve as writers.
Standing in as narrator of sorts is Lucas Brickman (played by Buddy Haardt), who opens the play by breaking the fourth wall and introducing the audience to his not so diverse group of colleagues — primarily white, male and -- except for the token Irishman Brian Doyle (well-portrayed by John Long) — Jewish.
There’s the somewhat bitter Milt Fields (lanky Jordan Stanley), a smart-ass whose rapid-fire asides mask the unhappiness lurking, Woody Allen-style, just below the surface; Val Slotsky (hammed up to the hilt by the always hilarious Doug Shapiro), a Russian immigrant whose thick accent and Soviet-era anxiety are the butt of many of his colleagues’ jokes; straight man Kenny Franks (a likable Robbie Rescigno), who often seems like the only adult in the room; and Cheryl Mullings’ Carol Wyman, who, like Kaling in “Late Night,” is admittedly there just to provide a distaff perspective to Max’s show, though she manages to get in some zingers as well
There is, of course, Max himself, brought to bombastic life by the inimitable Dale Place, who lights up the stage just by stepping onto it.
Each of those entrances is usually closely followed by birdbrain secretary Helen (an adorable Lisa Kate Joyce), whose squeaky Brooklynese makes you feel like you’ve stumbled onto the set of “Guys and Dolls.”
But if anyone can upstage this ragtag team of joke hustlers, it’s got to be that short, frenetic center of attraction, Ira Stone (a wonderfully over-the-top Yianni Papadimos, whose extended hypochondriac bit nearly stops the show).
But, owing to the Fifties conceit of “Laughter” — though it was produced on Broadway in 1993 — you’d better steel yourself for plenty of political incorrectness here, with fun poked not only at ethnic stereotypes but women as well. Thanks to Simon’s trademark warmth, however, the jokes are tolerable, if not uproarious.
While the manufactured crises in the script (Where’s Max? Where’s Ira? Will NBC cut the show down to an hour? Will the U.S.S.R. drop the H-bomb?) will hardly have you perched on the edge of your seat, the enjoyment to be had with “Laughter” isn’t of the cliffhanger variety. Instead, you’ll want to settle back for several hours of easy laughs, Simon-style, in the capable hands of some seasoned Barnstormer pros.
As noted, the set (by Emily Nichols) and costumes (from Mary Selvoski) play important roles in creating the tone of “Laughter.” Likewise, the straightforward lighting from Kevin Dunn and sound by Ryan Blaney give the placid feel of a Fifties sitcom.
Stage Manager David D’Agostino is back for a fourth season to ensure all runs seamlessly, and as noted, director Hundertmark seems determined to mine every nuance of “Laughter” he can.
But it is the writing and acting audiences may most closely relate to. Place is a Broadway/repertory veteran who knows how to command an entrance, a line or a pratfall. Shapiro and Mullings can play second bananas that would be top bananas in ordinary productions. Long and Stanley are returning to Tamworth after trodding the boards in last year’s “Dancing in Lughnasa” and “The Producers,” respectively, and are welcome back any time. And Barnstormers newcomers Papadimos and Rescigno throw it down in no uncertain terms that they know their craft.
Unfortunately, the weakest link is the generally reliable Haardt. In trying to sell the tyro aspect of Lucas, our Virgilian guide to this boatload of chuckles gets a bit lost in the sea of punchlines, letting some otherwise funny bits fall flat.
But quibbles aside, what’s not to love about an evening of “Laughter”? You’ll certainly find plenty in this production.
“Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” by Neil Simon, runs July 11-20 at the Barnstormers Theatre, now celebrating its 89th season in Tamworth. For tickets, go to barnstormerstheatre.org, or call the box office at (603) 323-8500.