Review: Walnut’s ’23rd Floor’ delivers the ‘Laughter’

By Christina Perryman

There is nothing like a good comedy to cheer up a dull and dreary January. For a great comedy, look no further than Walnut Street Theatre’s current production of “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” written by Neil Simon and brilliantly directed by Frank Ferrante.

“Laughter on the 23rd Floor” was inspired by Simon’s time working with Sid Caesar on the television variety program “Your Show of Shows.” The characters were based on Simon’s fellow writers, including Mel Tolkin, Carl Rainer, Larry Gelbart, Sheldon Keller and Mel Brooks, to name a few.

The show gives audiences a glimpse into the ups and downs, pressures and pleasures of a writer’s room in the early 1950s. The jokes are as outlandish as the characters, making the production non-stop funny. Lucas Brickman (Simon’s counterpart in the show, excellently played by Davy Raphaely) is the proverbial “new kid on the block,” trying to prove himself among the seasoned writers — Milt, Val, Brian, Kenny, Ira and Carol — who all write for Max Prince’s hit variety show. Max, who is eccentric to say the least, declares war on NBC after the network moves to cut the show from 90 minutes to 60 on the premise that it is “too sophisticated” for middle America. Although their jobs (and Max’s sanity) are at stake, the group continues to crank out the laughs. Despite the bickering and belittling, the group obviously cares about each other and their boss, giving the comedy an element of sentimentality as well as humor.

Anthony Lawton, Davy Raphaely, Tony Freeman, Frank Ferrante and Jesse Bernstein star in Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” at Walnut Street Theatre. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Walnut’s cast is phenomenal. Steve Perlmutter (Milt), Tony Freeman (Val), Anthony Lawton (Brian), Jesse Bernstein (Kenny), Scott Greer (Ira) and Lean Walton (Carol) are all terrifically funny. Ferrante, who pulls double duty as Max Prince, gives an energetic, over the top performance. Ferrante is not afraid to go all in, with comical results. Each performer brings a special element to the show. Greer is a hilarious, over-reactive hypochondriac. Bernstein tends to be the most sensible. Lawton is a hot head (his scene with Greer and the shoes was hilarious). Freeman is the leader and his interactions with Perlmutter are very funny. Walton, whose character is striving to make it in a man’s world is relatable. Ellie Mooney is wonderful as Helen, a secretary who secretly wants to be a comedy writer.

The set, designed by David P. Gordon, and costumes, by Mark Mariani, perfectly reflected the era. The set was detailed and nuanced. Milt’s frocks, in particular, were great — especially the white suit. The show does contain adult language.

“Laughter on the 23rd Floor” runs at Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, through March 5. Tickets are $20-$85. Show times are 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. For tickets or information, call 215-574-3550 or 1-800-982-2787 or visit www.walnutstreettheatre.org.

Simon’s “Last of the Red Hot Lovers,” starring Fran Prisco and Karen Peakes, is currently playing on Walnut’s Independence Studio on 3. The show continues through Feb. 5. Tickets are $30-$35. For show times and tickets, visit Walnut’s website at http://www.walnutstreettheatre.org.