I made up that joke. It's pretty lame. Unfortunately, it also approximates how much of Neil Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor is structured.
If you're going to put on a play about people who write one-liners for a living, and if their workday consists of setup/punch line/badda-bing-badda-boom, then you'd better put some zing in your badda-bing: The jokes have to be funny. At Interplayers, sometimes the Laughter is funny and sometimes it's not. Neil Simon's affectionate sketch of water-cooler banter among the best comedy writers of the 1950s is receiving an uneven production (through May 20).
The writers for this fictionalized Sid Caesar show are just types -- the rookie, the Russian, the woman trying to be one of the guys, the fussbudget, the hypochondriac -- and what's worse, there's not enough affection or interaction among them to bear out the conclusion's emphasis on one big happy comedic family, the end of television's golden era, and so on.
The second-act set piece -- a spoof of the Marlon Brando movie version of Julius Caesar (no relation to Sid) -- falls flat because it just isn't very funny, either in the writing or in the execution. (Ha! Caesar gets execu ... oh, never mind.) You can see how Your Show of Shows must've felt like really nonconformist stuff for the Eisenhower '50s, even how it paved the way, decades later, for Saturday Night Live. But quaint historical significance makes us smile with our lips together, not whoop with stuff shooting out our noses.
Some of the problem is in Simon's script. He has inserted himself as Lucas, the neophyte and inset narrator; as written, Lucas isn't very lively, and Chad Herrmann shows no signs of finding his pulse. Simon tries to bolster the show's jokes with social significance -- McCarthy and blacklisting, Soviets and the bomb -- and to merge it with the comic paranoia of the liberal-minded maniac who runs this comedy circus, Max Prince.
Prince represents the great Sid Caesar himself, and it's great to see William C. Marlowe both in the role and back on the Interplayers stage after seven years. Marlowe knows how to make himself look funny-ridiculous onstage -- I'd forgotten the crossed eyes, the effeminate sashaying hips, the comic red-faced rages. A speech about how capitalists advertise lots of shit just so we'll buy still more shit is delivered with hilarious intensity. But just as Simon is naturally a comic playwright who sometimes strains to include the respectable serious stuff in his plays, Marlowe is more at home doing shtick: The learned anecdotes from ancient Greek history (odd in a man as forgetful as Prince), the political tirades, the desperate and sentimental attempts to the keep the comic family together seem forced and unprepared for.
The same is true of another returning Interplayers veteran, Gary Pierce, as the hypochondriac modeled on Woody Allen. Pierce has a funny stand-on-the-table-and-belt-it-out moment, but a supposedly affectionate late-play reconciliation with a once-again-angry Prince wasn't very convincing at all.
Two standouts in supporting roles earn laughs with different styles. As Milt, the quickest and most flamboyant in a bunch of quick and flamboyant writers, Todd Diamond bursts into every scene with energy, presenting the comedic gold standard to which everybody else onstage ought to aspire. Diamond knows how to do broad physical comedy (with Milt's outlandish clothes), but he also knows just how to draw attention to the slyest of wisecracks.
In contrast, Todd Jasmin deadpans his way to laugh-out-loud jokes. As Brian, the Irish two-pack-a-day smoker with a yen to make it big in Hollywood, Jasmin repeatedly delivers poker-faced sarcasm from the back of the room. Where Diamond constructs comedy, Jasmin distills it; together, they set the pace for this show.
It's a pace that could afford to speed up, especially in the first act, when there are gaps in the dialogue big enough to fit a '53 Chevy. Director Andrew Ware Lewis needs to prod several actors either to pick up their cues or pick up their severance checks. Which might sound unduly harsh, except that there's much talk of layoffs and job insecurity, right there among all the Laughter on the 23rd Floor.
Dying in a tragedy is easy, actors will tell you -- it's trying to get comedy right that'll kill ya. In Laughter, Simon tries too hard to ram reflectiveness into his repartee. Comedians, though, are optimists: They're always hoping to fill your next few moments with smiles, and if you don't like one joke, there's always another one coming. The Laughter is intermittent at Interplayers, but the hits are entertaining and the misses, forgivable.