Young playwrights are often admonished to avoid writing about other writers. That's because it can be difficult to compellingly dramatize all the tedious work that goes into the creative writing process.
Yet veteran American playwright Neil Simon ("Lost in Yonkers," "The Odd Couple") ignored that advice when he penned his 1993 Broadway comedy "Laughter on the 23rd Floor." The play is a loving, fictionalized take on his own early writing career for Sid Caesar's hit 1950s variety program "Your Show of Shows," which also featured on its writing staff comic greats like Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and Woody Allen.
"Laughter on the 23rd Floor"★ ★
Location: Eclectic Full Contact Theatre at Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, 111 W. Campbell St., Arlington Heights, (847) 577-2121, metropolisarts.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 7 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday (no shows July 24-26); through Aug. 17.
Running time: About two hours and 10 minutes with intermission
Parking: Street parking and nearby free parking garage
Rating: For teenagers and older; features adult language
The Sid Caesar connection probably explains why "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" is back in the local spotlight. Caesar passed away at the age of 91 in February, and Simon's play pays homage to the comedy master.
Eclectic Full Contact Theatre is currently producing "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights following the show's recent run at Chicago's Athenaeum Theatre. First Folio Theatre in Oak Brook is also slated to produce the comedy in January 2015.
But considering all the talent behind "Your Show of Shows," it's unfortunate that "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" itself doesn't live up to expectations. Part of the problem is that Simon focuses more on documenting the quirks and extreme personalities of his fellow New York writers than crafting a dramatic plot that makes you truly empathize with them.
That's not to say there isn't conflict in the show. The exceedingly erratic behavior of stressed-out Caesar stand-in Max Prince (a bulging-eyed and amusingly exasperated Michael Woods) keeps the writers on constant edge. The writers also relentlessly pick each others' eccentricities apart -- and there are plenty of those -- including the annoying hypochondria of top writer Ira Stone (Charlie Wein), the boastful confidence of perpetually Hollywood-bound Brian Doyle (Alex Levin) and the attention-grabbing outfits worn by insecure Milt Fields (Kirk Osgood).
Conflict also comes courtesy of the network as the writers fight demands to reduce the running time of the show and dumb down the material for less-sophisticated middle-America audiences.
But these battles just melt into the background, much in the same way that Simon uses bland narrator Lucas Brickman (Parker Guidry) as a stand-in for himself. So the dramatic stakes aren't as heightened as they could be.
Instead, the crazy characters are essentially given free rein for quip after quip of comedy one-upsmanship and bizarre behavior.
Getting Simon's comedy rhythms just right is tough, even if "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" isn't the playwright's best material. The Eclectic cast under director David Belew works hard, but sometimes actors lack the snappy delivery to make the dialogue crackle.
Still, there are some very enjoyable performances, including Andrew J. Pond's Russian-accented take on head writer Val Slotsky, Lisa Savegnago's no-nonsense grasp on the sole female staff writer Carol Wyman and Scott Edward Mills' intelligent approach to the brainy Kenny Franks.
Belew does the audience a great service in providing reminders of the comedy importance of "Your Show of Shows." TV sketches from the original 1950s show are screened before the play begins, while a lobby display details the real writing talents who inspired the characters in Simon's play. But as enlightening as all this ancillary material is, it unfortunately highlights how "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" fails to live up to the comic legacy of those who inspired it.