So seven guys and a gal walk into a dumpy office in Manhattan, dip into the coffee, bagels and danish, and start crackin’ wise. And they’re funny. Really funny. For a living. They write sketches for a hit 1950s TV show starring someone much like Sid Caesar, but who’s called Max Prince in Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor.”
Who knew that Keegan Theatre, a company better known for staging Irish and American melodramas, and more recently musicals, could dive into Simon at his shtickiest and come up trumps.
This raucous yet intimate staging of “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” at Church Street Theater through Feb. 18, is, with few exceptions under Colin Smith’s direction, well cast and performed with the kind of clockwork timing that a Simon script requires.
That goes double for this perhaps under-praised 1993 play, a fictionalized account of Simon’s years writing for Caesar’s legendary “Your Show of Shows.”
Our guide through the chaos is Lucas (John Loughney), presumably based on the young playwright, a wannabe writer hired by Prince (Ray Ficca) on a trial basis.
We meet the other writers as they amble, saunter or shlump into work, with Lucas offering the audience character notes on each of them. Milt (Matt Dewberry), a doughy kibbitzer, shows up in a beret, hoping the boss will notice him. Val (Bradley Foster Smith), a brainy Russian emigre, seemingly dons a dour expression. Brian (Dan Van Why), an Irish American in this hothouse of Jewish jokesters, yearns to sell a screenplay and move to Hollywood. Kenny (Kevin Hasser), a dapper voice of reason, tries to prevent group panic.
Carol (Brianna Letourneau) holds her own as the lone woman, whom the guys respect, even if they’re loath to give her credit.
On his first entrance, Max drops his trousers, exposing socks with garters and boxer shorts, and yells for his secretary (Allison Leigh Corke) to have his pants cleaned. When upset, Max slams his fist through walls. He adds new holes when he hears that Sen. Joseph McCarthy has accused Gen. George C. Marshall, a World War II hero, of being a Communist and that the network wants him to do fewer intellectual sketches and a shorter show.
Angst burbles between the laughs. It’s only eight years after the slaughter of World War II, and now these guys see their country, whether native or adopted, on a witch hunt.
Even younger generations who have no familiarity with Sid Caesar will catch how his — and his writers’ — brand of anarchic humor became the foundation for the smartest sorts of TV comedy from the ’50s to “Saturday Night Live.”
Ficca has a fine time as the tortured, obsessive Max, his gangly frame cramped with anxiety. Smith’s Russian expat Val is also a sourball treat, whether pondering news of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s death or honing his pronunciation of an all-American obscenity. Dewberry, as the clotheshorse Milt, has comic timing and inklings of insecurity to spare.
A quintessentially seedy work room for Max and his writers has been created by set designer Samina Vieth — black-and-white linoleum floor, beige walls, a couple of battered desks, random chairs, a side table laden with noshables and a coffee urn; a window onto the Manhattan skyline; doors at each end of the room allowing for farcical arrivals and departures.
All this is lit with fluorescent brightness by Allan Weeks. Erin Nugent has clothed the cast — including the female characters — in apparel that seems in-period and rumpled as per the generally unfashionable characters wearing the outfits.
Before the start of each act, sound designer Tony Angelini provides snippets of theme songs and commercial jingles of 1950s and ’60s television.
Sing along, if you don’t care about revealing your age. Laughing along with the play, on the other hand, is for all generations.
Horwitz is a freelance writer.
by Neil Simon. Directed by Colin Smith. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Through Feb. 18 at Church Street Theater, 1742 Church St. NW. Call 703-892-0202 or visit www.keegantheatre.com .