Zach Curtis sat down the other night at Park Square Theatre for a run-through of "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" and clicked on his laptop. That's right. Zach Curtis, the man who used to spend less money on entire stage sets than the cost of a used computer, now takes notes electronically.

Curtis first staged this Neil Simon comedy in 2002 at the tiny Cedar-Riverside People's Theater. Walls would wobble when a door was slammed and the actors were so close you could feel their sweat (literally). The production that opens Friday at Park Square Theatre will be his fourth dance with the show -- and his directorial debut at the St. Paul playhouse.

If the names Fifty-Foot Penguin, Pigs Eye Theatre, Bald Alice and the Acadia Directors Series ring a bell with you, then you know Zach Curtis from his days as the big man on the campus of Twin Cities small theater. Curtis and his mates from those days have graduated, and none of the groups mentioned above still exists. But the graduates are still around.

Ari Hoptman, who had been making a name in comedy monologues, had just started doing character roles when Curtis cast him in that 2002 production of "Laughter." His career has blossomed in the past decade with roles in the Coen brothers' "A Serious Man" and a long-playing Nickelodeon Universe TV commercial. On stage he's been in more than 100 performances of "Sisters of Swing" and is a regular at the Minnesota Fringe Festival. Yet, he's back with "Laughter" for the fourth time as Ira Stone, a hypochondriac modeled on Mel Brooks.

"I like doing this show," said Hoptman, who has done more than 20 shows with Curtis. "It's fun, and I always like the cast, even when it changes."

Bob Malos is also back for the fourth time, as Val Slotsky, patterned on comedy writer Mel Tolkin. There was a time when you could not turn around in the small theater scene and not see Malos, who these days does more voice work than theater.

"This is a combination of a Neil Simon comedy and one of his biographical shows," Malos said. "It's about his life with these very funny comedy writers, and I like that."

Landmark TV show

Simon based his 1993 play on his experiences as a young writer for Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows." John Catron portrays Simon's character, who offers asides to the audience about the legendary team that included Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner and Selma Diamond (who inspired the character of Sally Rogers on "The Dick Van Dyke Show") in addition to Brooks and Tolkin.

The writers wrote 90 minutes of fresh material 39 weeks a year, for nearly four years in the early 1950s, and Caesar was the biggest star in television. "Laughter" is one of several progeny of this rarefied experience. Reiner created the Van Dyke show with stories from his time in the writers' room, and Brooks produced "My Favorite Year," a 1982 film.

Curtis says it was an accident that he directed the show for Pigs Eye in 2002. Ron Orbach, who played one of the roles on Broadway, was supposed to direct a production at the Jungle Theater, but pulled out of the project. Pigs Eye picked it up the following year. Curtis has since staged the show at the Paul Bunyan Playhouse and at Pioneer Place in St. Cloud.

"My budget for this production is bigger than all three of the previous ones combined," he said.

Summer vacation

Curtis spent most of his days during tech week ripping out his home basement. Heavy rain had turned carpet, walls, a ceiling and his homemade bar into stinky and moldy messes. As unfortunate as that sounds, Curtis could be thankful that he was in town to do the work himself. The past six summers he has been in Bemidji as artistic director of the Bunyan Playhouse.

"I can even go see a Fringe show this summer -- if someone has a show up that I really want to see," he said.

Curtis does not allow much sentiment into his memories of the old days, when he and his small theater mafia regularly gathered on weeknights at the Market Bar-B-Que to sing karaoke and acted in each other's shows.

Don Eitel is managing director of Theater Mu and a dad. Stacia Rice has her own company, Torch, and has made a name at the Guthrie. Carolyn Pool was on the Park Square stage last fall in "August: Osage County" and has performed at the Jungle and Illusion as an Equity actor. Of the loose confederation of small theater companies whose artists socialized together, only Peter Hansen's Gremlin Theatre remains. And Hansen is best known now for his roles at the Guthrie.

"It makes me a little wistful," Curtis said before a recent rehearsal. "I wish the Iveys would have existed earlier because there were some things we did that should have gotten more recognition."

Indeed, Rice's first performance as Maggie in "Cat on Hot Tin Roof" for Fifty-Foot Penguin was a landmark for her. Matt Sciple's performance in "Elephant Man" was raw and vulnerable. And there was that glorious, messy production of "Escape From Happiness" that Sciple directed and Curtis produced at the Acadia in 2002.

"I think the small groups today benefit from what we did," he said. "All of us, too. We wouldn't be where we are if we hadn't been doing that theater."

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299