Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows remains to this day one of the very greatest of all television comedy. Put it right up there with The Carol Burnett Show, both sketch comedy par excellence and gut-bustingly funny. Caesar had a legendary crew of writers—Larry Gelbert, Carl Reiner, Mel Tolkin, Sheldon Keller, Lucille Kallen, Selma Diamond, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Neil Simon among others. With Laughter on the 23rd Floor, Simon pays homage to his early experience and to the writer’s in the bullpen that helped Sid Caesar achieve seven Emmy nomination and two wins in 1953-54.
The wacky crew of blazingly smart writers kicks off the show with jokes that come fast and furious. The new kid, Lucas (Jeff Rolle Jr.) is a youthful version of Neil Simon himself. Milt (Bill Wolski) is a two-timer who cheats on his wife. Russian born Val (Richard Perloff), the nominal chief of the unruly team, tries with little success to get the writers down to business. Brian (Ryan Knight) is a chain smoker who squabbles with Ira (Daniel Tennant), a hypochondriac, while Kenny (Christopher McNair) tries to get some work done. And quick-witted Carol (Melissa Brandzel), the sharpest knife in the drawer, does more than keep pace with the boys. The secretary, Helen (Kathryn Farren), amiably blank compared to the high-energy team, pops in from time to time while harboring an impossible dream of writing comedy herself.
And then there is Max (Don Schlossman), the star of the show, the big Kahuna, a broad shouldered guy who dominates any room in which he finds himself. He is a bipolar stew of anxiety and confidence, obsequious and impulsive, a guy who calms down with tranquilizers and scotch. He is also a comic genius. Mr. Schlossman is a whirlwind of energy. He achieves the finest, most hilarious slow burn that I have ever seen, his face literally turning beet-red before a shattering, explosive release.
Laughter on the 23rd Floor is not all fun and laughs and deals with some serious social issues. There is conflict with the network whose only concern is not the quality of a show, but audience share and profit. NBC thinks his prize-winning comedy is too intellectual for the audience. The dumbing down still runs rampant today. A woman’s place in a male-dominated craft is touched upon. And the political situation of the time—the McCarthy witch hunt with its blacklist, the Rosenburg trial and execution, ethnic conflict and more—calls to mind our current political climate. But back then making fun of a political figure like Senator McCarthy was very, very dangerous. Many lives were ruined, whereas today the current administration is being relentlessly lampooned on a daily basis. Will there be repercussions? Who knows?
Director Holly Baker-Kreiswirth, with keen attention to sightlines, keeps the action fast paced as befits a Neil Simon comedy. Little Fish Theatre has mastered the skill of maximizing their limited space. The scenic design by Christopher Beyries, with lighting by Stacey Adams, works very well for the show. Costumes by Diana Mann capture the sartorial look of the early Fifties. The women’s outfits are stylish and flattering. The excellent play list of songs of the 1950s selected by Ms. Baker-Kreiswirth is delightful and clearly pleased many members of the audience, some of whom sang along very softly.
The resilient Little Fish Theatre, which endured an unexpected shut down due to electrical problems that were exacerbated by the winter’s torrential storms, is back and better than ever with greatly improved electrical service and a new air conditioning system. Bravo!
Laughter on the 23rd Floor continues through May 20 at Little Fish Theatre, 777 S. Centre Street in San Pedro.