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Laughter on the 23rd Floor

If Max Prince smiles, my kids eat this week.— Milt
Laughter on the 23rd Floor
Ty Mayberry, Jason Grasl, Pat Towne and Brian John Ross Bowie. (Photo by Chelsea Sutton)

When a man puts his fist through a wall, you might expect him to withdraw it bleeding or at least sporting some serious bruises. When he punches the offending structure a second time just a few minutes later, perhaps a muffled "Yeeowch!" might be in order. Don't expect that in a Neil Simon play. There are no markings or expressions of agony from the amped up and seriously enraged comedy hour host Max Prince played by Pat Towne. Indeed, this Max could probably land a few more shots.

This is not to knock. Towne, the actor whose performance at the center of the Garry Marshall Theatre production presents a deep-dish lunatic at whom all self-respecting stucco should tremble. The play doesn't help him. Bruised hand or no bruised hand, this Prince of a man will be just fine, and so will the people around him, even as the world around them is circling the drain.

Laughter on the 23rd Floor is the most defanged of Neil Simon's series of autobiographical comedies, perhaps even of the prolific playwright's entire oeuvre. Crafted as an homage to the years a young Simon spent on the writing staff of Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows, the play contains a Simon stand-in who narrates and informs us of everyone's fate; a group of schticky, tic-filled comedy scribes who are also based on real people; plenty of rim shot one-liners from the aforementioned writers and no real plot to speak of. Harmless and about as edgy as the Easter Bunny, the play might have carried the alternate title Chicken Soup for the Jewish Comedy Writer's Soul.

Michael Shepperd's production boasts a synched up cast. John Ross Bowie, Jeff Campanella, LaNisa Renee Frederick, Jason Grasl, Cornelius Jones, Jr., Ty Mayberry and Ronald Rusinek are, believably, a dysfunctional family occupying the same nuthouse for too long under the benign dictatorship of the same head squirrel. We can buy this group as a de facto family for each other, although the production is asking us to overlook the fact that two of the individuals rattling off morsels of semitic New York humor are African American. In a writers room in 1953? Not bloody likely.

They go at it, these writers do. There's a funny name throw down and an impromptu skit of Marlon Brando acting out the murder of Julius Caesar in full Stanley Kowalski mode. No stranger to irony, Max takes on the role of Caesar, stabbed to death by his conspiring writers. Both bits are set pieces. Do we actually care whether Ira, the hypochondriac might be genuinely ill; whether Milt, the philanderer will end up divorced; whether narrator Lucas will earn his writing staff wings; or whether budget cuts will force one unlucky scribe to get the ax? Truthfully, not so much as long as we're laughing while we're taking it in.

The network says the Max Prince Show is too sophisticated for rural audiences and its star must shorten its overall length and dumb down its content. Max flips, and when the boss is unhappy, the troops experience his wrath. Irishman Brian (played by Bowie) is one sold script away from quitting the show and lighting out for Hollywood. Head writer Val (Rusinek), is a Russian and de facto mother hen. Pliable Milt (Mayberry), the group's biggest lickspittle, has to keep this gig to support his wayward habits. Level-headed Carol (Frederick) holds her own despite being (or perhaps because she is) the only woman in the room. Kenny (Jones, Jr.) is the staff's whiz kid who could probably make it to Hollywood faster than Brian. Lucas (Grasl) just wants to stick around long enough that all the others will finally get his name right.

The group shuffles between a pair of spaces (workroom and breakroom) separated by a single doorway that moves around, suggesting that scenic designer Alex Calle may have included it to serve as a visual joke. We hear a lot about crazy Max before we meet him, and when Towne finally arrives, he lives up to the billing. Essaying a role originated by Nathan Lane (who also played it on TV), Towne is a stalking-bull of a man who, on more than one occasion, looks like absolute hell.

The cast members playing the writers all get their moments, with Bowie and Mayberry doing especially strong work. Delightfully, the person who ends up walking off with the play stashed in her handbag is Jessica Joy. Playing Helen, Max's sweet-tempered and curvy secretary, Joy basically reflects back every outsized emotion she encounters. She also executes a dainty climb over a single step with great comic finesse.

The office girl Friday stealing all the best laughs from a room full of professional yuksters? In the land of Neil Simon Lite, anything is possible.

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Laughter on the 23rd Floor
By Neil Simon
Directed by Michael Shepperd
Cast: John Ross Bowie, Jeff Campanella, Lanisa Renee Frederick, Jason Grasl, Cornelius Jones, Jr., Jessica Joy, Ty Mayberry, Ronald Rusinek, Pat Towne
Scenic Design: Alex Calle
Costume Design: E.B. Brooks
Sound Design: Rebecca Kessin
Lighting Design: Jared Sayeg
Properties Design: Michael O'Hara
Hair and Makeup Design: Byron Batista
Stage Manager: Mercedes L. Clanton
Plays through April 22, 2018 at the Garry Marshall Theatre, 4252 W. Riverside Drive, Burbank, (818) 955-8101,
Running time: Two hours, with one 15 minute intermission
Reviewed by Evan Henerson

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