Chicago Theatre Review
Live TV Come Alive
Laughter on the 23rd Floor
In the final production of their second season this young company, whose goal is to offer audiences “works diverse in subject, style and presentation” takes playgoers back to the 1950’s when live television reigned and comedy was king. Largely based on playwright Neil Simon’s personal experiences as a fledgling scriptwriter for NBC, the play centers around seven talented comedy scribes who create comic routines for a fictional TV program based upon Sid Caesar’s famous “Your Show of Shows.” The show’s star is a loud, volatile entertainer named Max Prince, and his writing staff includes characters based on some of the comic writing geniuses of our time.
The play spans most of 1953 during the height of Republican Senator Joe McCarthy’s Communist Black List scare. The fear provoked by this political witch hunt sets everyone on edge, but it’s just the tip of the conflict iceberg experienced by this staff of writers and their television star.
First there’s Lucas Brickman, Neil Simon’s stand-in. When rumors hit that budgetary cuts will force the studio to fire someone, the young junior writer fears his neck will be on the chopping block. Next comes Val Slotsky, Prince’s Russian-born head writer who suspects that he’ll become the staff’s obvious scapegoat for McCarthy’s anti-American accusations. Milt Fields is having marital problems and Kenny Franks knows that a staff reduction will mean added work for those few writers left on the payroll. Irish-American Brian Doyle, the token Gentile on staff, dreams of making it big as a Hollywood screenwriter. Carol Wyman, the writing team’s sole female, is desperately trying to conceive her first child. Then there’s Ira Stone, consistently late to work and the biggest pain in his staff’s collective butt. However, this gifted group of men and women are more than simply perceptive individuals; they’re a comic dream team.
Among this talented cast Andrew Pond stands out as Russian immigrant, Val. So comfortable with his Eastern European dialect and its cadence, Mr. Pond is conversational and natural. His comic timing is top notch, yet never over-the-top; and his physicality superbly matches his verbal skills. Scott Edward Mills plays career-driven Kenny (patterned after Larry Gelbart) with style, panache and just the right amount of manic energy. Kirk Osgood’s high-pitched, Jon Lovitz style of delivery makes every sentence he utters sound funny, even when discussing his broken marriage.
As Ira, Charlie Wein borders on the obnoxious, but much of this is the result of the playwright’s imagination. Representing Mel Brooks, Ira’s frantic, hypochondriac-induced complaints would be more than any staff could stand. Michael Woods plays Max Prince (the Sid Caesar character) as a loud, psychotic lunatic with anger control issues. His bombastic outbursts and maniacal ravings soon wear thin, especially in the intimate Atheneum studio space. Parker Guidry’s quieter, more conversational portrayal, on the other hand, is much welcome in this production, and it serves him well as Neil Simon’s as the voice of reason.
David Belew truly understands how to direct comedy, especially farce. For a Neil Simon play to work, the dialogue must be rapid fire, yet spoken with clarity. Any unnecessary pauses and the audience begins to realize how crazy stupid are both the situation and dialogue. Mr. Belew has mastered this art with his cast and they execute their skill flawlessly.
Because Simon modeled these characters after real people from his past the conflicts are even more meaningful and real. The comedy is sharp and well-honed, timed perfectly and delivered flawlessly. For playgoers who remember “The Sid Caesar Hour,” the McCarthy Era or are simply fans of finely directed comedy, this is a summer play to savor.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 6-29 by Eclectic Full Contact Theatre at Atheneum Theatre Studio 3, 2936 N. Southport Ave., Chicago.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.