Monday, May 27

Simon delivers ‘Laughter’ at the Doolittle

Simon delivers ‘Laughter’ at the Doolittle

Latest play brings back the days of ’50s comic timing

By Jennifer Richmond

Daily Bruin Senior Staff

Aah the ’50s ­ when variety shows ruled the networks and
people like Milton Berle and Sid Caesar were the kings of prime

What? Don’t remember them?

Well, for an example of their exquisite comic timing, turn to
Neil Simon’s brilliant "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" at the
Doolittle Theatre.

Simon takes a semi-biographical look at the years when he wrote
for Sid Caesar’s "Your Show of Shows," covering the writing room
where many an argument and brilliant ideas evolved.

Although Simon’s other plays can have funny moments, they’re
usually more serious while dealing with consequences a writer

But "Laughter" is different. Simon decides to do what he does
best in this show: write comedy chock full of one-liners. And the
one-liners work because "Your Show of Shows" was from start to
finish one-liners.

Jokes don’t work if the delivery is bad. But under Jerry Zaks’
direction, all the actors prove they not only understand comic
timing, they have mastered it.

The best examples of this are comic writers Milt (Lewis
Stadlen), the New York Jew who just wants to be noticed, Brain
(J.K. Simmons) the Irish Catholic who dreams of being a famous
screenwriter in Hollywood, Ira (Alan Blumenfeld), the hypochondriac
who’s always late, and of course the star of the show Max Prince
(Howard Hesseman). If it seems like there are a lot of names,
that’s because every single one of them is great and prove time and
time again why.

Hesseman’s Prince is nuts. That’s it. He’s just plain nuts. The
man downs tranquilizer pills with a shot of Scotch and walks in
only to get undressed so his secretary can get his suit pressed.
But the lunacy doesn’t stop there. He punches holes in the wall
when he’s upset and then frames them in silver as a tribute to the
person who caused the violent outpouring of emotion.

Although best known for his roles on the sitcoms "WKRP" and
"Head of the Class," Hesseman doesn’t represent either of those
characters here. His voice is even different, complete with the
slightest hint of a New York accent.

While Hesseman’s incessant ravings are funny enough, put
together with Simmon’s Brain, Stadlen’s Milt and Blumenfeld’s Ira,
his outbursts are even better.

Blumenfeld’s Ira is the perfect fence for Hesseman. They’re
always battling each other and even end up strangling one another
in the second act.

At one point, Ira thinks he has a brain tumor. So, to make it
public, he writes "I have a brain tumor" on the wall in indelible
ink. When Hesseman’s Prince enters and sees the writing he goes off
the deep end, again, and demands to know who did it and why. When
Ira confesses he did it because he’s the one with the tumor,
Hesseman looks sympathetic and asks "Will it wash off?"

It’s hard to tell if he’s talking about the tumor or the
graffiti. But either way the moment is one of utter delight because
it proves how insane Prince is.

Stadler’s Milt has a moment similar to this later in the show.
Max’s secretary, Helen (Michelle Schumacher) is the stereotypical
dumb blonde who wants to become a comic writer but knows nothing
about the comic medium. So, when Milt says something funny to his
co-worker, she expounds on the classic ba-dum-bum with "ba-dum-bum,
bum-ba-dum-bumbum," to which he responds "Later we’ll have a little
talk about timing."

The line is perfect for Stadlen’s Milt because of all the
actors, Stadlen is the one who’s got the best timing. He’s always
on and knows just where to pause and just where to react. Almost
every time he opens his mouth a laugh is guaranteed.

Milt’s line proves what Simon’s been saying throughout all of
"Laughter" ­ timing is everything. And there’s no doubt that
this play has all the timing to make it as great and
well-remembered as the television comedy on which it’s based.

STAGE: "Laughter on the 23rd Floor." Written by Neil Simon.
Directed by Jerry Zaks. Running through July 9 at the UCLA James A.
Doolittle Theatre. Performing Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m.
with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. TIX: $47.50-15. For
more info call (213) 365-3500.

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