Neil Simon's fond recollection of his days writing for Sid Caesar still makes good warm-weather fun.
Park Square Theatre has kicked off the summer theater frolic with "Laughter on the 23rd Floor." This is the season for confection and froth -- something to send you into the warm night smiling and ready for one last highball before turning in.
"Laughter," which opened Friday, fills the bill nicely. Neil Simon clearly had fun reaching back into his experiences on Sid Caesar's writing team in the early 1950s. Simon cut his teeth with Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner and others as they pounded out 90 minutes of live TV each week for "Your Show of Shows." This was an era of McCarthyism and an expanding TV audience that diluted the erudite satire of "Your Show." Simon fashions the lightest thread out of these historical points.
Mostly, Simon cloaks barbed caricatures of his mates in warm humor. Actor Ari Hoptman plays the hypochondriac Ira Stone, a man who wants nothing more than a virus named after him. Eric Webster cuts a jazzy swath as Milt Fields, the stand-in for Reiner. And Craig Johnson (in his 50th show at Park Square) nails the dust-dry affect of Kenny Franks (Gelbart).
Simon himself appears in the character of Lucas Brickman, a fresh and chipper John Catron, who swoons ever so slightly over the talent he is brushing up against. Lucas sets up scenes, comments on his memories and then steps back to let the animals take over. And they do.
Webster fills out his ice-cream suit with broad, cocky shoulders and a cool sense of timing. He sees himself as the alpha wolf in this jungle but he chafes under head writer Val Slotsky (Bob Malos).
With a Russian accent, Malos mangles profanity, hectors his colleagues to start writing and tamps down wildfires.
The real genius in the room, though, is Ira. Hoptman elevates what is already a good role with enough chutzpah for three ordinary men -- and never seems to break a sweat. He's brilliant.
Randall Funk and Karen Wiese-Thompson get humor in quite different ways, Funk with an underplayed succession of one-liners and Wiese-Thompson with big bombast.
Director Zach Curtis has staged "Laughter" three times previously and clearly knows how to move the herd. Here, he has the benefit of set designer Michael Hoover's big, elegant New York loft, decked with linoleum and glass doors. A. Emily Heaney's costumes are just right, from Catron's argyle sweater vest to the double-breasted suits.
The weakest link in the cast is unfortunately the largest -- Michael Paul Levin's portrayal of Max Prince, the putative Sid Caesar. Admittedly, this is the toughest role in the show. Max is nearly insane, paranoid, occasionally tranked out and at the same time a comic genius. Levin tries mightily but never seems to get beneath the man's skin. His grimaces and mugs are evidence of a man who is acting. Set among the other actors, who find their characters with less effort, he sticks out.
Yes, there is something of a plot, but it really doesn't matter. The joy of this show is just watching the characters pitching and catching one-liners and breezing through the light nostalgia of TV's golden age. Isn't that what summer is for?