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For delivery of a series of one-liners, go to Simon’s ’23rd Floor’

for The Brooklyn Paper
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In Washington, DC, Sen. Joseph McCarthy is compiling blacklists of suspected Communists. In the Soviet Union, Stalin, after killing millions of his own people, has finally succumbed to the grim reaper.

But in the offices of "The Max Prince Show," there is nothing but mirth.

Neil Simon’s "Laughter on the 23rd Floor," now playing at the Heights Players’ theater, is based on the playwright’s own experiences as a young comic writer for Sid Caesar’s "Your Show of Shows," back in the 1950s.

Directed by Ellen Weinstein Pittari ("Rumors"), with a cast that includes such Heights Players regulars as Ed Healy ("Rumors"), Steve Platt ("Six Degrees of Separation"), and Susan Schnetzer ("Sabrina Fair"), "Laugher on the 23rd Floor" shows off some of the troupe’s best talent.

The central character is Max Prince (the inestimable Healy), a booze-guzzling, pill-gobbling, neurotically lovable comic more than mildly reminiscent of Sid Caesar himself.

Prince has surrounded himself with a group of brilliant writers who can match him mania for phobia. Milt Fields (Troy Matthew Lescher) is a compulsive cheat, who manages to lose his wife without keeping his mistress. Val Skolsky (the very, very funny Platt) is a Russian emigre who hasn’t quite mastered the art of cursing in English, but keeps trying. Brian Doyle (David Berberian) is an aspiring playwright, and the only non-Jew, which makes him something like corned beef and cabbage among corned beef on rye.

Kenny Franks (Chris Orf), calm and bespectacled, is the voice of reason in the loony bin. Ira Stone (David Reinhart) is the classic hypochondriac, who mistakes flatulence for a heart attack and a headache for a brain tumor.

Carol Wyman (Schnetzer) is the sole female of the bunch - unless you count long-suffering secretary Helen (Elisa Delgado-Tomei, who gives her performance a great Judy Holliday touch). Carol shows a nascent feminism that gets more laughs than serious consideration.

The story is narrated by the recently hired writer, Luca Brickman (the totally sincere Carter Roy), who is no doubt Simon himself.

"Laughter" opened on Broadway at the Richard Rogers Theatre on Nov. 22, 1993. The production was directed by Jerry Zaks and starred Nathan Lane as Max Prince, with Lewis J. Stadlen as Milt, Mark Linn-Baker as Val, Randy Graff as Carol and J.K. Simmons (of TV’s "Oz" and "Law and Order" fame) as Brian.

In "Laughter," audiences can find most of Simon’s traditional sources of humor - psychiatrists, hypochondriacs, extravagant pride, alcoholism, sexual innuendo, and of course, Jewish angst, Jewish food, Jewish words and Jewish-sounding non-words. There’s also a host of serious issues - lightly treated - and a discussion of the parallel lines of Communism in Russia and anti-Communism in the United States that would be chilling if the audience was forced to take it seriously.

But where Simon is at his best is when he puts all of these devices at the service of a play with a real plot that’s intrinsically funny ("Sweet Charity," "Brighton Beach Memoirs"). In "Laughter," he uses them only for a long-running series of one-liners.

Admittedly, Simon is so good at writing one-liners and the cast is so good at delivering them, that many people may not notice that "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" is a play about nothing, in which nothing happens. And if a skilled execution counts for anything, no one should even think of shooting this director.

Still, for those of us who have even the vaguest memory of the real "Your Show of Shows," "Laughter" is a mere shadow and a faint echo of its inspiration.

The only glimpse the audience ever gets of the kind of hilarity that made Sid Caesar a legend is a brief scene in which Healy does a magnificent job playing Max Prince playing Marlon Brando playing Julius Caesar - a tour de force that makes us wish we were watching "The Max Prince Show" instead of "Laughter on the 23rd Floor."

But it’s worth a trip down to Willow Place just to see Healy do his stuff. The truth is the show about "Your Show of Shows" is just not as funny as the show.

In this production, the Heights Players are definitely at their best. Unfortunately, Neil Simon is not. Still, Simon at his half-best is not half-bad.

 

"Laughter on the 23rd Floor" plays through March 18, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets are $12, students and seniors $10. The Heights Players theater is located at 26 Willow Place. For reservations, call (718) 237-2752.

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