In the early 1950s, American popular culture pulsed with an unprecedented energy, much of which emanated from New York. Marlon Brando was on Broadway, Mickey Mantle was in Yankee Stadium, and Sid Caesar, the original king of television comedy, was on NBC in Your Show of Shows, a weekly 90-minute variety program that many consider the finest of the genre. One of the writers on the staff of Your Show of Shows was a young Neil Simon. Author of The Odd Couple, Barefoot in the Park, The Sunshine Boys, and many, many other plays, Simon later went on to become one of the most successful writers of Broadway comedies in history.
Fortunately for us, Simon took the time to go back and remember his own story in several of his plays, including Laughter on the 23rd Floor, which opens this weekend at Santa Barbara City College. Set in the writer’s room of a network television variety show, the play explores the manic intensity of the stars who made these shows, and the constant chaos in which their writing staffs were forced to work.
Recently I spoke with director Judy Garey about her work on this show, the fourth Neil Simon play she has directed for the SBCC Theatre Group.
You have a special connection with Neil Simon. How did that come about? I directed Rumors last summer, and before that I did Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues, both at City College, but that was some time ago. The production I did at SBCC of Biloxi Blues won an award and went to the Kennedy Center. So, yes, I have a strong connection to Neil Simon.
What makes this one special? Laughter on the 23rd Floor is about Simon’s early career writing for television-Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows in particular. It’s set in 1953, and Max Prince (Joseph Beck) is the king of television comedy, but he is under pressure from the network. This was still the very beginning of television in terms of mass acceptance. There were only three networks, and they were focused on getting television into as many households as possible, so they were very sensitive in regard to the accessibility and acceptability of the programming. It couldn’t be too strange, or else people would be put off. But Max Prince and the rest of the performers are coming from the stage, and radio, and these are already evolved traditions. The in-jokes, the timing, the whole gestalt of the variety show required some background for audiences to process. People needed to know something about it in order to understand it. You had to know what was going on, and for the network execs-well, this was not what they wanted. So there is a tension between the writers and the performer on one side, and the network executives on the other, and that’s what the play dramatizes, among other things.
How did this conflict resolve? In the end, the variety show stars and their writers lost the battle. First the shows were cut from 90 minutes to one hour, and then, eventually, they became extinct. Television moved on, but some remnants of the vaudeville tradition remained.
How is the cast? Joe Beck is amazing as Max Prince. This part is a major opportunity for him, and I can tell you from rehearsals that he is very much up to it. The Neil Simon role is a character named Lucas, and he will be played by George Coe. As in the other autobiographical Simon plays, this character addresses the audience and keeps up a running commentary on the show.
You’re not in the Garvin Theatre for this one. Can you describe the new venue? The Interim Theater is intimate-it only holds about 100 people. Fortunately, while the Garvin is under renovation, City College has put up some temporary structures for the departments that have been displaced. This is one of them. It’s just a big room with risers for the audience, but I promise you, it will be a great set.
Catch Laughter on the 23rd Floor at the Santa Barbara City College Interim Theater from Thursday, July 9, through Saturday, July 25. Shows will be held Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. For tickets and information, call 965-5935.