Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

Laughter on the 23rd Floor

The Adobe Theater
Review by Rob Spiegel

Also see Dean's review of Dial M for Murder

Graphic Courtesy of the Adobe Theater
Playwright Neil Simon began his comedy life in the 1950s, writing for the new medium of television. He wrote for Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows," and his fellow writers included Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, and Simon's brother Danny. Simon's 1993 play Laughter on the 23rd Floor revisits the intense and crazy life of those writers as they struggle to create funny skits while working for their crazy boss Max Prince (Matt Heath), who is based on Sid Caesar.

From 1950 to 1954, the writers met at various times on the 11th and 12th floors of the NBC building. Simon combined the two numbers to get the 23rd floor for the play's title. While the play doesn't single out most of the writers and identify them with their real-life counterparts, the character of Ira (Joe Feldman) a hypochondriac who brings chaos to every scene, is apparently based on Mel Brooks.

Director Colleen Neary McClure, who is also one of the founding members of the Albuquerque theatre company West End Productions, keeps the action fast and brilliantly timed. The funny lines are just one pop after another. The story is told by junior writer Lucas (Henry Sebastian Bender), who presumably represents Simon himself.

All the action takes place a writers' room at NBC in 1953. The set by Petifoger, with design and dressing support from Nina Dorrance, is an absolute wonder, complete with a faux back wall that perfectly resembles dry wall when a fist plows through it.

Throughout the action, we get comments from the writers about the ongoing destructive political attacks on writers by Senator Joseph McCarthy. While these snippets from the outside world seem to bear little impact on the play's story, McCarthy was a critically dangerous force that threatened and often destroyed the careers of writers in New York and Hollywood. The inclusion of McCarthy news nails the era, but it also shows that writers of the time were glued to these devastating developments.

Throughout the play, the writers are struggling at the edge as though the show is about to be cancelled. They monitor the plate of pastries by the coffee maker to see if NBC is trimming the quality or quantity of the goodies, a barometer of whether or not the corporation is getting ready to kill the show. The writers are constantly on edge, expecting to be fired at any moment.

At the center of the story is Prince, an out-of-control alcoholic whose anger is also close to the skin and is prone to eruptions of rage and despair. Heath delivers an over-the-top performance of spitting and spewing, sweating and lunging at the writers (both verbally and physically). He's the quintessential horrible boss who forgets the writers' names and if they have children. Heath's explosiveness is a wonder to watch. You can't see anything else when he's on the stage. His performance would be too much if it weren't so funny. He explodes with abundant physical humor in a play that is otherwise cerebral. He pumps the energy to an ever higher level each time he bursts into the writers' room.

All of the performances are strong, including Ron Bronitsky as Milt, Dan Ware as Val, Parker Owen as Brian, Lars Panaro as Kenny, Abriana LaValley as the one female writer, Carol, and Rhonda Ware as the one-person support staff for this manic crew.

Kudos on a nice job delivered by the production staff, which includes—in addition to Petifoger and Dorrance—Lexie Williamson as stage manager, Lisa Hannah as assistant stage manager, and Carolyn Hogan doing her always exceptional work as costume designer.

Laughter on the 23rd Floor, through February 24, 2019, at The Adobe Theater, 9813 Fourth St. NW, Albuquerque NM. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. There will be a pay-what-you-will performance on Thursday, February 7 at 7:30 p.m. General admission is $20. Admission for seniors, students, and ATG members is $17. For reservations, call 505-898-9222. For more information, visit