Community theaters love to stage the comedies of Neil Simon, assuming that anything from the prolific playwright will guarantee laughs. The Great Falls Players, in fact, are devoting all three of their productions this season to Simon's work, beginning with their current show, "Laughter on the 23rd Floor."
Simon has occasionally overextended himself, churning out too much material and coming up short in the mirth department. "Laughter" is an example, awkwardly lurching between comedy and weak attempts to say something meaningful about McCarthyism, which was the scourge of 1950s show business caused by an unscrupulous U.S. senator exploiting fear of Communists. A recent production by Dominion Stage in Arlington was notable in that not a single laugh was heard all evening from the disappointed audience the night it was reviewed.
The Great Falls Players are having more luck, however, working hard to rise above the material and generating enough gentle laughter for a mildly satisfying evening.
The play is Simon's semi-autobiographical look at his stint writing for Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows" in 1953. Caesar cooped up in one room such characters and future comedy-writing giants as Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Carl Reiner, gravel-voiced Selma Diamond and "M*A*S*H" creator Larry Gelbart. The pressure of writing every day created a rich vein of comedic material to be mined, but others did the digging before Simon got around to it, leaving him just a few nuggets.
Foremost was Reiner's masterpiece, "The Dick Van Dyke Show," with Reiner himself playing the Caesar role as Alan Brady. Then Woody Allen played the young Simon-like character working for a Caesar-like star in the absorbing seriocomic film "The Front" in 1976, which focuses on the McCarthy-era blacklisting. Director Richard Benjamin served up the same setting in his brilliant comedy film, "My Favorite Year" in 1982, which was transformed into a Broadway musical in 1992, a year before "Laughter" premiered.
Even with the immensely talented Nathan Lane starring as Max Prince, the Caesar character, on the stage and in a subsequent film version, Simon's take on the writers' room is less interesting than the others'. While there are enough amusing one-liners to recognize this as Simon's work, the play lacks the witty repartee of richly drawn characters one expects of him and relies on constant use of a certain four-letter word for cheap (but sometimes funny) laughs.
Great Falls Players director Maggie Kern has assembled a competent cast, and they have obviously labored hard to create characters as rich as possible within the play's limitations. Bob Greenspan is wonderfully crusty as chief writer Val, developing some edgy personality behind the one-joke ethnic accent. Walter Bonora has the best one-liners as writer Milt (think Buddy Sorrell from the Van Dyke show) and with his relaxed, natural delivery and knockout sense of timing, he aces all of them. Bob Patterson is a casting coup as Max Prince; he bears a remarkable resemblance to Caesar at certain angles, and he makes a bravura attempt to recreate that manic, magical presence, failing only because it is an impossible task.
As gal writer Carol (think Sally Rogers), Anne Patterson spent the first act warming up the night the play was reviewed, acquiring a thick New York accent during intermission and doing much better in Act Two. Josh Keithley, as chain-smoking Brian, should have lost his unconvincing Irish brogue between acts, as it undercut what might otherwise have been an affecting performance of a sad character.
The story of Prince/Caesar, his struggles with the network and everybody's struggle with McCarthyism are seen through the eyes of the Simon character, young Lucas. Rob Batarla plays that character with appropriate boyishness and wide-eyed wonder, often relating the story directly to the audience. It's just too bad he doesn't have a better, more original story to tell.
"Laughter on the 23rd Floor" will be performed through Saturday by Great Falls Players at The Grange Theatre, 9818 Georgetown Pike. Final performances at 8 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday. Tickets are available only at the door of the Great Falls Grange; reservations not required. For information, call 703-759-6224.