Theater Review: Comedy writers can be (very) funny

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Photo by Emmy Waldon Fox

THE LOWE DOWN
By Jim Lowe

Neil Simon’s 1993 “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” harkens back to a bygone day of television and humor. And thanks to an excellent cast of comic actors, the ArtisTree Theatre Company production, which opened Friday at Damon Hall in Hartland, proved a delight — both touching and hilarious.

Simon based this ’50s-style comedy on his experience as a junior writer on Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows.” It features the craziness of a bunch of sequestered high-intensity writers, as well as some of the darker sides of the era, including the dumbing down of television and the McCarthy witch hunts. Still, its fast-paced zapping humor keeps it from getting heavy for more than a moment.

The play focuses on the Caesar-like Max Prince, star of a weekly comedy-variety show in 1953. Simon’s alter-ego Lucas Brickman, the staff’s newest writer, keeps an ongoing commentary on Prince’s battle with NBC executives who believe that the show’s humor is too sophisticated for Middle America.

But it’s the wacky antics that go on in the writers’ room that make this show a joy from beginning to end.

The ArtisTree production benefits from a cast of larger-than-life comic actors, ideal for this humor, barely kept under control with the fine direction of Jarvis Green, ArtistTree Theatre’s artistic director and a fine actor himself. The cast shared their collective delight with the audience at Friday’s performance.

Christian Kohn, a regular at St. Michael’s Playhouse with a dominant speaking voice to die for, was Max, sometimes lordly, sometimes pathetic, but always self-centered. Bill Carmichael, another St. Mike’s regular, was Brian Doyle, the writers’ token gentile, acerbic and witty.

Eric Zengota, another comic voice to die for, was a riot as the hypochondriacal Mel Brooks-character Ira Stone. Mike Backman was droll as the womanizing Milt Fields, while Jona Tuck was both a wit and foil as Carol Wyman, the only woman writer.

Contrasting them were the nearly straight characters, Bill Chappelle as the Russian Val Skolsky, Ira Sargent as the earnest Kenny Franks, and Nick Orfanella as young Lucas. Irene Green (Northern Stage’s marketing director) was a perfect ditz as Max’s secretary Helen.

The were opening-night slips, though they fell right in with the humor. But there was hardly a weak characterization in the bunch — this was excellent ensemble acting.

And the group’s version of Marlon Brando in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” is worth well more than the price of admission.

Adrian Tans turned the bare Damon Hall stage into a convincing writers room, effectively lit by Kevin Fitzpatrick. Julia Meeks’ costumes effectively mixed period styles with a contemporary feel. It was a polished production.

“Laughter on the 23rd Floor” is among Simon’s best comedies, and the ArtisTree production delivers all its fun.

ArtisTree Theatre Company
ArtisTree Theatre Company presents Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” Nov. 6-15 at Damon Hall, 1 Quechee Road in Hartland. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday. For tickets or information, go online to artistreevt.org.