ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Odd as it may sound, while watching Neil Simon’s 1993 comedy “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” I was reminded of David Mamet, especially “Glengarry Glen Ross,” which was written in 1984 but made into a movie the year before Simon’s play premiered on Broadway. Both plays are about aggressive working men and take place in the room where the men work. Mamet also has a predilection for the F-word, and I don’t recall another Simon play in which his characters use the F-word so vociferously, or even at all.
Neil Simon died last August, but Adobe Theater is not producing “Laughter” to commemorate his passing. They do a lot of Neil Simon, about one play per season. I’ve seen “The Odd Couple,” “The Sunshine Boys” and “Come Blow Your Horn” at Adobe and liked them all, but never have I seen Neil Simon done – anywhere – with such skill and blistering energy as director Colleen Neary McClure’s current production of “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” at the Adobe Theater.
What makes the show so good is the precise characterizations and the freedom given to the actors to take things as far as they can possibly go, and with these guys that’s pretty far. Such freedom is not a license to chaos, but rather perfectly choreographed chaos. McClure’s symmetrical compositions, her exquisite framing and sense of movement within the frame perfectly complement her extraordinary gift with actors. The madness here is composed with an almost classical sense of beauty.
The play revolves around character Max Prince, the star of a 1950s television comedy that the producers at NBC feel is too intelligent for the American population. They want to dumb things down. And so, the budget is slashed, the length of the show cut down, and it’s just a matter of time before they cancel the show altogether.
Matt Heath plays Max with manic energy and staccato gesticulations, furiously pacing the stage like a wild animal, cigar in mouth, wasted out of his mind on pills and booze. His physical and vocal rhythms in this show are so uncharacteristic that quite frankly I did not know it was him until I looked at the program during intermission, and I have seen Heath in at least a half-dozen plays. It’s a tour de force performance, and the rest of the cast is on the same level.
Simon’s play is autobiographical, a dramatic presentation of his days writing for the Sid Caesar show in the early days of television. Henry Bender plays Lucas, the junior writer on the show and Simon’s alter-ego as well as the show’s narrator. Joe Feldman plays Ira, a hypochondriac supposedly based on Mel Brooks. His madcap over-the-top performance is brilliant and hilarious.
Dan Ware and Ron Bronitsky also deliver perfectly calibrated comic performances.
But really, this is ensemble playing at its finest, and the entire cast is to be applauded. The night I saw the show, an important sound cue was dropped (the telephone was supposed to ring), and the actors, never dropping character, handled it with brilliant improvisational skill. This is a first-rate production.
“Laughter on the 23rd Floor” is playing through Feb. 24 at Adobe Theater, 9813 Fourth NW. Go to adobetheater.org or call 898-9222 for reservations.