Laughter on the 23rd Floor

  • Date:
    Monday, October 7, 1996

    The scene is set inside a TV studio office where a group of comic scriptwriters meet to write the material for The Max Prince Show. The show however is not doing too well in the ratings and is in danger of being dropped.

    Gene Wilder plays Max Wilder, and it is him who saves this poor show from being a complete disaster. He is without doubt a very talented actor. He is a genius at comedy with a wonderful look and feel about him. What a pity that Wilder is making his West End debut with this play, he deserves something a lot better.

    Lasting over two and half hours with an interval, it started fine but ran out of steam well before the end. It did have its moments with the odd good line here and there but they were few and far between.

    Even though I didn't like it, a lot of the audience seemed too. There was a lot of laughing from them, however not much in the awful last half hour.

    The theatre was nearly full, and for a Monday evening that's good , so unfortunately I expect this show to run to the booking date, which is 17th January 97. Perhaps it's just not my cup of tea!

    (Darren Dalglish)

    There may well have been laughter on the 23rd floor, but if there was, it went way above my head! This comedy is based on playwright, Neil Simon's own experiences, back in the 1950's when he was among a team of writers (which included the likes of Woody Allen and Mel Brooks) for the comedian Sid Caesar, striving to create the mayhem that was know as "Caesar's Show of Shows.

    Gene Wilder, star of such comedy classics as "Woman in Red", "Stir Crazy" and "Blazing Saddles" plays Max Prince, Caesar's fictional contemporary, a brilliant comedian on-screen, a neurotic, depressive off-screen. As the whole thing takes place in the writer's office, you never get to see this character perform, therefore it was difficult to comprehend why he was such a respected figure among his fellow writers, and such a success. Wilder's portrayal is very unsubtle, but the rest of the audience seemed to enjoy it.

    Rolf Saxon was very strong as Milt Fields, although most gave good performances. Toby Whitehouse as the newcomer Lucas Brickman (the character intended to represent Simon), needs a couple of extra sessions with his dialect coach, as he lost his accent from time. Roger Haines direction is not at it's best, the emotion stays on one level, and there were never any surprises.

    It was the material I didn't like. I found the piece monotonous, and the plot very thin, in fact one could be forgiven for wondering at any time during the show if anything was ever going to happen. One liners were plentiful, but the comedy lacked depth. To be fair, I was in a minority, there were many around me (predominantly Americans) who were plainly having the time of their lives, though I couldn't help thinking to myself that perhaps they should get out more often!

    (Jason L Belne)

    The pairing of Neil Simon and Gene Wilder held great promise for a delightful evening of entertainment. It was, alas, not to be. 'Laughter on the 23rd Floor' left this reviewer merely disappointed in the dress circle. From the opening monologue by Toby Whitehouse, playing the playwright's alter ego and our narrator, the fasten seat belts sign had been turned on. It was going to be a bumpy ride.

    'Laughter on the 23rd Floor' is an autobiographical attempt by Simon to recreate the mood of the early days of American television in the 1950's. There are scatter shot references to the House un-American Activities Committee, McCarthyism and blacklisting tossed in apparently to indicate that this comedy is 'serious' art. However, this production doesn't seem to understand the significance of these events to the story it is trying to tell.

    'Laughter' may not be the slickest play ever written by Simon, but neither was it enhanced by the awkward performances, and uninformed direction by Roger Haines. The ensemble lacked the timing necessary to carry the understated humor, and the direction displayed a notable lack of understanding of the text.

    To this American's ear, the accents were nothing short of dreadful and distracting (save for native sons Wilder and Rolf Saxon). Most egregious was Stefan Bednarczyk, playing Valskolsky the head writer of Russian-Jewish heritage, whose accent traveled through Scandinavia, across the breadth of 'mittle europa' but never quite managed to make it to Minsk. In what should have been a memorable moment, the ensemble (ever preoccupied with their accents) were unable to demonstrate the rapid fire wise cracking of comedy writers during a brainstorming session.

    Gene Wilder, known in his film work for portraying explosive, manic energy ('The Producers') as well as complex characters with a dark side ('Willy Wonka', 'Young Frankenstein'), did the best interpretation of a somnambulist this reviewer has seen in some time. Audience interest was held only by the slimmest hope that at some point The Star would finally burst forth from his comatose state. Sadly, the vintage Gene Wilder never entered the building, forget about making it up 23 floors.

    There were some entertaining moments provided by Rolf Saxon, as the womanizing Milt Fields, and the audience supplied appreciative applause. This production has a few quality ingredients, it simply lacks the chemistry and energy for a first rate comedy. Mercifully, 'Laughter' is scheduled to close 1 March 97.

    (Cecile Regner)

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