An interesting juxtaposition of openings this week: an evening with Ken Campbell, who habitually transmogrifies recent events in his own life into bizarre, surreal rambles, was followed by the European première of Neil Simon's latest play, consisting of the now familiar recipe – a slice of his early history lightly dusted with the pretence of fiction.
In this case, the pretence is lighter than ever: it seems to have been compulsory in pre-publicity for Laughter On The 23rd Floor to point out that central character Max Prince is based on Sid Caesar, whose 1950s television series were watersheds in American comic history and spawned writers including Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Woody Allen and Simon himself – here represented as Lucas Brickman, smiling a lot with shy nervousness but whose function is basically to observe and record events.
As Prince's writing team struggle simultaneously to come up with material for the next show and, usually more importantly, to keep each other and their boss on the rails, Simon engages in prolonged riffing in the manner of The Odd Couple's poker-school scenes. Here, however, although we are constantly told that these are all the funniest guys that the others have ever met, the gags are more often than not limp and laboured.
This is most glaringly apparent in the portrayal of Max Prince himself. True, the comic genius is supposed to be a shambling mess away from the cameras, addicted to booze and tranquilisers, but in trying to convey both this and the character's comedic spark Simon finds himself walking two paths at once. Similarly, Gene Wilder's performance deploys all the humorous devices that one would expect from such a past master – most notably sustained double-takes and a fine sequence in which Prince twice falls asleep on his feet – but seems, sadly, to be running on empty; one feels nothing of the spirit of Prince, Caesar or even Wilder in these antics.
As Caesar's (and thus Prince's) heyday coincided with the zenith of McCarthyite frenzy, numerous references are made to the HUAC witch-hunts amongst other events in the world at large. Simon appears to want to go on the record as having deplored these pogroms even at the time, but since every other character is just as vocal in their disgust we gain little sense of tension; that whole shameful episode of history is reduced to scarcely more than dramatic wallpaper.
Director Roger Haines secures a deal of fine ensemble playing, and one or two performances stand out – Stefan Bednarczyk as chief writer Val rises above his blinis-and-borscht accent, and Linal Haft as the hypochondriac Ira is far better than his material – yet the evening lacks something. It may be that Britons do not respond to the seminal role of Sid Caesar in pioneering wackily intelligent screen comedy, but the more likely explanation is that this simply is not that great a play.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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