The main reason to go see Neil Simon’s hysterical “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” at the Underground is because in the first act, there is what I can only call a comedy shaggy-dog hydra of epic proportions.
Jody Kujawa’s Max Prince, star of “The Max Prince Show,” is in the writers’ room with his comedy writers trying to make a meandering point that gives no indication of ever getting anywhere. Every time he pauses, somebody else in the room lets loose with a joke.
I swear, for every joke told, two more take its place.
Simon’s genius was milking a setup for multiple jokes. That scene in this play might have the most jokes playing off any setup in his legendary career. The sheer speed at which director Nathan Carlblom’s completely capable cast do this scene, especially with the pinpoint timing, makes it even more impressive.
The characters in Simon’s play are comically inspired by, rather than historically based upon, the writers he worked with on Sid Caesar’s shows back in television’s Golden Age (Caesar was certainly not a complete basket case like paranoid Prince).
So, if you show up thinking you can figure out which one of these maniacs wrote “M*A*S*H” or “Blazing Saddles” based on who says what in this play, that is not going to happen.
Liam O’Brien plays Lucas Brickman, the stand-in for Simon himself, who is basically Virgil taking us on a tour down memory lane with these divine comics (Simon does not give his own character a big laugh until act two and cuts him off with just the one).
Each character gets his own specific type of joke: Jason Scorich’s Milt Fields does the word play, Greg Anderson’s Val Skolsky is the heavily accented immigrant, Jonathan Manchester’s Kenny Franks handles the sardonic stuff, Brian Doyle’s David Krick is combatively pugnacious, and Louisa Scorich’s Carol Wyman is responsible for what passes for simple decency in this insane asylum.
As Helen the secretary, Jennie Ross is the only non-comedian in the room, so she gets to be funny by accident.
Literally last but not least, Mike Pederson’s perpetually late Ira Stone finally arrives upon the scene in the full throes of his hypochondria crisis of the week. Talk about milking a set up to the max, except in this scene, Pederson gets to do it all by his lonesome.
No one will be surprised Kujawa gets big laughs throughout, especially when his character is finally freed to play a character and explodes on stage. But his best work was done in lower gear where Max was fleshed out by littler and quieter moments that were simply wonderful.
There is a political undercurrent to that time (some politician constantly telling outlandish lies), but the focus is on the competitive comedy and comradeship that flourished in that fabled room before they ever got around to actually writing any comedy sketches.
Also, after intermission there is a segment where we get to see everybody working on an actual sketch, the subject of which is Simon’s most touching tribute to his old boss.
Lawrance Bernabo is a theater and arts reviewer for the News Tribune.
If you go
What: Neil Simon’s "Laughter on the 23rd Floor”
Where: The Underground, 506 W. Michigan St.
When: 7:30 Thursday-Saturday until Aug. 10
Tickets: $20 at duluthplayhouse.org. 218-733-7555