Laughter on the 23rd Floor @ Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA

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By Samuel J. Cox

Set in 1953 NYC, against of backdrop of Senator McCarthy’s infamous ‘red scare’, the Kate Cherry directed play focuses on the antics that take place in the writer’s room for the ‘The Max Prince Show’, a sketch comedy having to resist the rating-slaves and suits at NBC who want to cut costs and censor the show.

Written in 1993 by the Pulitzer Prize winning Neil Simon (1927- ), an enduring American playwright and screenwriter (he’s one of the most Oscar and Tony Award-nominated writers of all time), it is an exploration of the clash between corporate demands and creative vision. While some references don’t stand the test of time, it is a humorous and successful endeavour by the Black Swan State Theatre Company.

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Peter Rowsthorn (of ‘Kath & Kim’ fame, among many others) plays the titular star Max Prince, skilfully embodying the eccentric, neurotic diva who draws life inspiration from the Thracian War. His humorous brand of physical comedy was reminiscent of the superb Colin Lane from the successful comedy duo Lano and Woodley.

In an work environment where loud equals right, the nine writers fire shots at each other, their sniping, acerbic, witty one-liners providing the chuckles. Both rivals and friends competing for Max’s good grace, their lunacy and energy has them bounding about the bland, drab office space in Rockefeller Plaza, where the windows look out at a convincing NY cityscape.

Partly autobiographical, the roman à clef is inspired by Simon’s stint as a junior writer for ‘Your Show of Shows’, a live 90-minute variety that was broadcast weekly in the land of the free (the U.S.) during the ‘50s, starring Sid Caesar. Simon, who first began writing as a sports editor while in the Army Air Force, based the characters loosely on his co-writers, which included comics like Woody Allen and Mel Brooks.

James Sweeney plays intern Lucas Brickman (Simon’s alter-ego), the main character who breaks the fourth wall to address the audience at opportune moments, offering commentary on the carnage, and inactivity, that takes place under the loose supervision of Russian/head writer Val.

Theatre critic John Lahr describes Simon’s characters as ‘frustrated, edgy, and insecure’, and that holds true for this piece, but at heart they are decent, relatable human beings concerned about their future and unnerved by their sudden job insecurity.

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‘Laughter on the 23rd Floor’ runs until September 21.

Images by Gary Marsh Photography.

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