Theater Reviews
5:29 pm
Tue February 4, 2014

Ocean State’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” Shows That Comedy Is Not Easy

Think it’s easy to be funny? Is it a joy to tell jokes? To do “physical” fun?

Ah, . . . no folks, not really. 

Comedy, as any actor or comedian will tell you, is hard.

And that’s just the case these nights at Ocean State. The production of “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” finds nine hard-working performers giving it all they’ve got.

Led by Trinity Rep’s leading actor, Fred Sullivan Jr., the cast pounces and pumps.

They jump on every Simon gag. They are happy to be physical throughout.

Whether it’s a guy stripping down to his underwear to get a laugh or a gal coming in full pregnancy to moan and groan, this cast is hard working and sometimes quite funny.

They give us a reasonably well thought out and decent view of Simon’s play.

But this production, directed by Washington D.C. based Brad Van Grack, is not really together. Each performer is doing his or her best but there’s not enough togetherness, enough playing off of each other as opposed to going with a my- joke-now, your-joke-next atmosphere. Cohesion and collaboration are somehow missing.

“Laughter on the 23rd Floor” tells us of a kid from Brooklyn getting his first break.

He becomes a junior, and very insecure, writer for a major 1950s television hit called “Your Show of Shows.” Led by the indefatigable, rubber-faced, but always thinking, Sid Caesar, it was the biggest thing on TV back in the 50’s.

The writers, including soon-to-be famous guys like Mel Brooks and Larry Gelbart were well-paid but always worried about what the “suits” – the executives at NBC – were thinking, and more importantly, doing.

But this production, directed by Washington D.C. based Brad Van Grack, is not really together. Each performer is doing his or her best but there’s not enough togetherness, enough playing off of each other as opposed to going with a my- joke-now, your-joke-next atmosphere. Cohesion and collaboration are somehow missing.

Simon’s play has many fine moments. He does manage to show you the fear beneath the confidence and chutzpah of the writers. These guys, he says, were really good at what they could do. They knew comedy, knew instinctively what was funny, and what was not.

Sullivan, for instance, plays his Sid Caesar guy with an ever-present cigar and an overweening quality of both power and talent mixed with shivering knees and fear. Others, Tommy Labanaris as an ever-late, but ever sweet young man is very fine.  So is Aimee Turner, generally Ocean State’s producer/director, as the pregnant lady.

But as I say Simon’s play also has some problems to overcome. Some of the jokes are just plain lame. Labanaris does his best with a line concerning his desire to drop all the other writers and do the script himself.

“Give me paper, lots of paper,” he cries.

“Don’t forget to flush,”one of his pal’s replies.

Groaners like that make this play hard to do. That’s the problem this production has not quite conquered.

Here’s an example. Simon and his fellow writers actually worked on the 11th and 12th floors at NBC’s Rockefeller Center offices in New York. But Simon somehow knew that 23 was funnier than 11 or 12. And that, folks is what’s called “talent.” It makes for real comedy.

But comedy is, . . . well, you know about all that.