The youngest writer on Your Show of Shows was Neil Simon, a fresh-faced kid of 26 who, along with his brother Danny, was thrown in with the lions of TV writing in 1953. Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, and Selma Diamond were among them. Reiner, Sid Caesar, and Imogen Coca were cast members but Caesar ruled the roost. Simon wrote Laughter on the 23rd Floor (1993) to immortalize that 90-minute, live variety show and the real-life characters who created it.

As Simon’s homage to Caesar, the driving force behind the fictional TV show of the play is Max Prince, a comedic genius whose staff wonder and worry about him in equal parts. Local TV-and-stage actor Matt Heath inhabits him as a natural funnyman, addled from drugs, liquor and lack of sleep, yet attuned to the concerns of his crazy writers (if not the names of their children). Simon’s writing of course is filled with punchlines, and Heath nails the laugh every time. But there is much more to this role than cracking jokes. Max is a peripatetic, neurotic, nutty character, but he has great integrity and respect for his writers. Heath lets us in on what moves this complex guy in a hilarious and touching way.

While the team begins to assemble, we understand that each is meant to stand out as a near caricature of him/herself. It works. Val (Dan Ware) is a Russian-Jewish immigrant concerned about current events like Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt and the death of Stalin. He tries to get the others to focus on work, a hen clucking over the chicks. Lucas (Henry Sebastian Bender in for Neil Simon), as the new guy, must learn the ropes and prove his worth. Val’s nemesis is Brian (Parker Owen), the pugnacious Irish guy and sole Gentile on the roster. 

Joe Feldman plays Ira, the raspy voiced king of hypochondriacs (Mel Brooks?), and Lars Panaro is Kenny, the steady one in the bunch. Milt (Ron Bronitsky) is a fashion plate with a quick mind and a marriage on the rocks. Trying to be one of the guys, Carol (the Selma Diamond stand-in, played by Abriana LaValley) nevertheless expresses intermittent disgust with their antics. 

The plot requires Max and his writers to fear for their jobs every minute, as the show is over budget and under-loved by the high muckety mucks. This dilemma gives the actors plenty of material to work with, and gives the audience nonstop hysterics. 

It’s important to remember that these “types” are familiar to us because people like those writers brought their colleagues to life on stage and TV. Alas, theirs was a male-dominated world. A small disappointment for me was the cliched writing surrounding secretary Helen (Rhonda Ware), whose able support of the staff somehow ends in the usual ditzy dialogue as she’s being hit on by Milt. The cast moved smoothly past this sticking point and no one was groped. Thank the goddess for small favors.

The stage is set in mid-century modern style, with a bright floor and walls of teal and lime. A shared telephone is much used, and the community coffee pot sees a lot of traffic. There is a centered chair that resembles a throne—Max’s throne, of course. His dressing room door is adorned with a crown. Director Colleen Neary McClure deploys the actors about the set to plausibly recreate the comic chaos and offhand productivity of these funny writers. Set design by Petifoger reminded me of the writers’ room in The  Dick Van Dyke Show—a series inspired by the experiences of Carl Reiner on Your Show of Shows.

—Stephanie Hainsfurther publishes

Laughter on the 23rd Floor opens January 25th and runs through February 24th at The Adobe Theater, 9813 4th Street NW. Friday and Saturday evenings performances start at 7:30pm, Sundays at 2:00pm. General Admission $20, Discount $17 (Seniors, Students, ATG/PBS Members, Military, First Responders). Opening Weekend Special: All Tickets $15!