Laughter on the 23rd Floor Review -- Comedy with a Dark Edge

I used to love watching old reruns of television variety shows when I was a kid – Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, and even the newer first run shows like Carol Burnett and the venerable Saturday Night Live.  There’s something about those sketch comedy programs that just made you happier.  I never watched Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, but its format was along those lines.  This week, I had the opportunity to see very the funny Laughter on the 23rd Floor at the Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oak Brook.  This play is Neil Simon’s homage to the writers of a 1950’s comedy shows like Your Show of Shows.  As Simon was one of the writers of Your Show of Shows, it’s easy to assume that the play is art imitating life.   The feel of the production is definitely sketch comedy, but with an ability to delve into the heart of the characters – what drives them to do this work and how difficult it is to stay on top in the early years of television.  First Folio Theatre gives us an interesting view of funny people trying to make people laugh, all against the backdrop of the newness of the medium and the darkness of the Stalin and McCarthy years.

Hayley Rice (Carol), René Ruelas (Max Prince), Kevin McKillip (Ira)

The play opens with new funnyman Lucas (Andrew Behling) in the office on the 23rd floor of Rockefeller Center in New York City, talking directly to audience about his love of his new job with the comic writers behind the sketch comedy show headlined by Max Prince (René Ruelas).  Max not only is the star, but he acts as one of the writers every day as they work to create the weekly ninety minute show.  The other writers have various quirks and traits that drive their coworkers crazy, but are vital for creating the content.  Head writer Val (Joe Foust) is Russian, and he is teased mercilessly for his inability to say a certain swear word by his fellow writer Milt (Wayne Temple).  Milt is constantly making the world a joke, wearing funny hats and suits as the play progresses.  Brian (Steve Peebles) is always trying to sell his screenplays so that he can move to Hollywood.  Kenny (Steve Schine) and Carol (Hayley Rice) provide their perspectives to the team, and the final writer, slightly crazy Ira (Kevin McKillip) is always late and presumes to have a new terminal illness.  The final member of the cast is Helen, the secretary, played by Callie Johnson.  She dreams of becoming a comedy writer while not ever understanding the jokes that the writers say or write.

Steve Peebles (Brian), Hayley Rice (Carol), Wayne Temple (Milt), Callie Johnson (Helen), René Ruelas (Max Prince)

At the beginning of the play, the television show is at the top of its game.   As time goes on, audiences start wanting other, perhaps more “simple” entertainment, and Max is pressured to reduce the show to sixty minutes.  Next he’s asked to have people approve all sketches for content, where once he was the king of his own show.  When more cost-cutting is required, he begins using his own money to keep his writers employed, and the toll it takes on his mental health also has an effect on his writers and friends.  Behind the scenes, the McCarthyism and Communist fears are ever-present to these writers who know some of the persecuted individuals.  Even with the pressures of the show and its eventual demise, there is a real love between these creators of laughter while they bicker and argue each day in the quest to make television magic.

Andrew Behling (Lucas), Steve Peebles (Brian), Joe Foust (Val), René Ruelas (Max Prince), Kevin McKillip (Ira)

The Mayslake Peabody Estate theatre is an intimate space and I felt like I was in the room with the writers as they prepared each week’s show.  René Ruelas as Max gives a terrific performance.  I felt his frustration and angst with him as he tried to save the show and I could see how much he cared for his writers.  Behling is excellent as the wide-eyed comedy innocent, working to learn the craft.   Temple keeps the audience rolling and McKillip ias Ira is such a nutcase, you just have to love him.  Schine, Rice, Peebles, and Johnson give enjoyable supporting performances.  I like that Simon had a female writer in the mix, when there were so few women working in the profession at the time.

René Ruelas (Max Prince)

Kevin McKillip (Ira), Andrew Behling (Lucas), Wayne Temple (Milt)

Most of us have to work in teams of diverse people at some point of our lives.   These team situations perhaps aren’t as intense as the environment that the writers work in, but I can see that there are aspects of each participant’s personality that make the team work.    You need visionaries, nutcases, leaders, different genders, diverse backgrounds, etc. to be able to create something larger than yourselves.  In this case, there is a layering affect.  Max’s team of writers come together and create a weekly show that is inspired by the collective knowledge, smarts, and energy of the team.  It was better than any of them could do alone.  And in the real world, First Folio’s team of actors give a combined performance that is inspired by their own talents, experiences and energy.   Their “Max” is director Alison C. Vesely.

The show is one of a kind, and it inspires me to think about my own endeavors.  We can all only hope to create something larger than ourselves surrounded by talented and focused teammates.   

I highly recommend Laughter on the 23rd Floor.   The show runs through March 1, 2015.  Performances are Wednesday through Saturday.  Please consult the First Folio website here for showtimes and tickets, or call the box office at 630.986.8067.  Mayslake Peabody Estate is located at 1717 W. 31st St. in Oak Brook, IL.

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