Punch Lines, But Little Punch

Neil Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor recalls his writing for Sid Caesar and his own early comedies, sans higher ambition

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When Neil Simon and other such budding comedy legends as Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and Larry Gelbart wrote for TV comic Sid Caesar in his 1950s heyday, they rarely put anything on paper. Instead they sat in a room trying to top one another, shouting out situations and one-liners. Periodically Caesar would halt the schoolboy jockeying to read aloud what they had so far. "Read what?" Simon recalls asking. "We haven't written anything yet." But Caesar had culled the best of their ideas as he heard them and, by a wink or nod, had ensured they were recorded by the most junior writer.

The main thing wrong with Laughter on the 23rd Floor, Simon's affectionate memoir of those days, is that this manic style of writing, which he vividly recalls in conversation, is never really seen onstage. The play, which opened on Broadway last week, will delight Simon fans who yearn for the days when he wrote to be funny, without the poignant self-analysis that has enriched such late works as Broadway Bound and Jake's Women. For those who admire these later plays and think he found in them his great theme -- the making of a writer and the moral conundrums of using one's most intimate relationships as "material" -- Laughter disappoints.

It's a workplace comedy reminiscent of Barney Miller or The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In contrast to sitcoms, which have years to develop nuances, the play instantly sketches the ensemble's mutual mockeries. There's the fussbudget (Lewis J. Stadlen), the hypochondriac (Ron Orbach), the braggart (J.K. . Simmons), the deferential immigrant (Mark Linn-Baker), the Hollywood smoothie (John Slattery), plus two underwritten women, one tough (Randy Graff), one amazingly dumb (Bitty Schram).

Dominating them is the Caesar character, Max Prince, played by Nathan Lane with such adrenal zest and unquenchable rage that his face keeps turning purple and his eyeballs all but explode. Lane evokes Jackie Gleason more than Caesar as he bellows and punches through walls. The difference, as Simon knows from having served both, is that Caesar huddled with his writers while Gleason demanded that the finished script just be slipped under the door.

The show conveys the writers' affection for their chief performer. But it leaves unexplored the vital conflict within each writer and between them all -- the egotism of being an artist vs. the collaborative necessities of cranking out scripts at such speed. Indeed, not much about these people stamps them as writers. Laughter sends up any office life. That may give it wider appeal and a longer run. But it deprives the play of depth.

The narrator, blandly written and just as blandly played by Stephen Mailer, is a stand-in for Simon. Unlike the autobiographical trilogy of Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound, this play does not give the narrator a penchant for candor. We hear little about how this way of working helped or hurt his craft, satisfied or thwarted his soul. Structurally, the piece owes much to Biloxi: a group in thrall to a dangerous leader, a boot camp that hardens the head more than the heart, a tense scene where some teammate is to be unjustly cast out, a summing-up of everyone's future fate. But Biloxi had tragic overtones, while Laughter on the 23rd Floor is comedy, comedy all the way.