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Review: Laughter on the 23rd Floor

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Pollard Theatre Company;s production of "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" begins its run on Friday, Sept. 1 at 8:00 P.M. at the Pollard Theatre.
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Pollard Theatre Company welcomes the new season with a production of Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor that’s wildly uneven. They should install seatbelts for the audience because it’s a bumpy ride.

Donald Jordan, who is artistic director of Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre, directs the production, and he has made do under the circumstances. Iffy material plus a capable cast equals, well, I don’t know what.

This 1993 comedy is one of Simon’s middling plays, or maybe a little better. It’s definitely not one of his best and is far from his worst. It is a roman à clef inspired by the playwright’s experience as a writer on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, which aired on NBC from 1950 to 1954. The set, also designed by Jordan, is a convincing mid-century modern room in Rockefeller Center.

But this production almost dies from terminal inertia before it gets started. Jordan has cast experienced, proven actors in the play, so I blame the script for the flatness at the beginning of the first act. So many of Simon’s gag lines fall with a thud, it starts to get embarrassing.

Then, 45 minutes into the show, just as you’re about to crawl up the aisle on hands and knees in desperate retreat, the incomparable Jon Haque comes on stage. Haque’s bona fides as a comic actor have been well established before now. But all the over-the-top mugging he does as hypochondriac Ira Stone feels completely authentic and appropriate. Haque is a comic actor in the tradition of, say, Jackie Gleason, and, here, he gives an extraordinary performance. You’d never imagine “They think I have a brain tumor” could be a running gag line. But it is.

Now, we need to double back a bit. Timothy Stewart plays the cigar-chomping Max Prince, the Sid Caesar-like star of the play’s fictional television variety show. Max reigns as one of the great comics of his time, but he’s debilitated by insecurity and paranoia. He washes down tranquilizers with scotch whiskey.

Stewart’s Max is a much more complex character than Haque’s Ira. Max must be played as comic and tragic and, ultimately, poignant. Stewart has been a Pollard resident company member for 18 seasons, and he has matured into a fine artist. Stewart’s wide-ranging performance fully equals Haque’s in this production.

The other writers in the room include various types. Jared Blount plays our sweet-natured narrator and guide, a character based on Simon himself. James A. Hughes is the head writer, a Russian émigré who rejoices at the news of Stalin’s death. Kaleb Bruza is the young, intelligent egghead in horned-rimmed glasses who serves as the voice of reason in this writers’ zoo. Tiffany Tuggle plays the only female writer and can banter pointedly with the boy-men in the room. The squeaky-voiced Kris Schinske plays the secretary who aspires to be a comedy writer.

See what I mean about Jordan assembling an experienced, proven cast? The production has its moments, but the play doesn’t amount to much. Theatergoers will wish this cast were doing a better play.

Laughter on the 23rd Floor
Friday, September 1st, 2017 8:00pm to Saturday, September 9th, 2017 8:00pm
Pollard Theatre Company
120 W Harrison Ave.
Guthrie, OK 73044
405-282-2800
Prices from: $25.00

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About the Author

Larry Laneer

Larry Laneer has reviewed theater for several Oklahoma City publications.  He has...

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