4 April 2004
Downstairs at the upstairs
It was a lovely sunny day outside: what better time to descend into a dark room in an even darker basement?
Well, actually, it was the last chance to see CityRep's production of Neil Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor, which ran for four weeks to solid reviews and decent attendance. CitySpace, the Rep's 90-seat (more or less) facility, somewhere between five-eighths and four-fifths round, sits under the Music Hall; as a late buyer, I got what might be considered the worst seat in the house, but the sightlines were still good.
By now, the story is out: everyone, or at least everyone likely to buy tickets, knows that 23rd Floor is a just-barely-fictionalized retelling of Simon's experience as a fledgling writer on Sid Caesar's Golden Age variety series Your Show of Shows, the staff of which, when they went their separate ways, would continue to make great comedy. But trying to match up the individual characters with Woody Allen or Mel Brooks or Carl Reiner or Larry Gelbart is really irrelevant; what matters here is the idea, which I endorse wholeheartedly, that trying to be funny will drive you crazy. And Simon's balancing act, just enough pathos to remind you why these people love what they do, is difficult to describe, let alone express, but director Catrin Parker pulls it off deftly. The cast (with two substitutions for "medical reasons") is obviously having a wonderful time, and the only time I felt slightly out of sorts was when I contrasted Simon's words with Dennis Palumbo's (and, rumor has it, some of Mel Brooks') in the 1982 film My Favorite Year, set in, yes, a just-barely-fictionalized version of Sid Caesar's Golden Age variety series Your Show of Shows. Then again, Dick Benjamin's movie didn't have anyone who grabbed at my heart quite as efficiently as Brenda Williams, who plays Carol, the sole female writer on the 23rd Floor staff.
And speaking of grabbing at my heart, I felt a small twinge driving home. High clouds had moved in, but there was still lots of bright. The city had turned on the sprinklers in the parklike center median of Shartel through Crown Heights, and there was a couple, maybe thirtysomething, dashing through the water jets, soaked to the skin, quite possibly having the time of their lives. Alas, I'm short on dash these days.