Playwright Neil Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor is a slice-of-life memoir of his time as a writer on Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows.
The play's bawdy, gag-a-minute humor re-creates the manic energy produced when talents such as Mr. Caesar, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Carl Reiner and Mr. Simon came together. Laughter opens tonight at Fort Gordon Dinner Theatre.
But there is more to the play than schtick.
"This gives a little insight into the lives of these people that made us laugh," director Steve Walpert said. "Sid Caesar - the Max Prince character in the play - was a troubled guy. He took sleeping pills and pep pills and drank a lot. There is also a layer of political significance because this takes place during the McCarthy era."
Although many of the characters in the play are based on fairly famous personalities, audiences won't be seeing Woody Allen or Mel Brooks impersonations.
"Neil Simon wrote this in such a way that even though these are people we all know, you can't look at the characters and figure out who they are," said Matt Stovall, who plays Prince. "The thing is, this play is really based on these people before they became famous, before they became performers. They were just writers who went on to become the personalities we are familiar with."
The play also revives the personalities who have faded from the public eye, pioneers who brought comedy to the masses during television's formative years.
"That's one of the things I find disheartening is that so many of the comedic stars of early television and radio have been completely forgotten, and they deserve to be remembered," said David Bartlett, who plays writer Val Skolsky in the play. "So I hope this encourages younger audience members to do a little research and seek out those performers so they aren't forgotten."
A true warts-and-all portrait of the labor behind the laughs, Laughter does feature some fairly strong language. Mr. Walpert explained that what the writers found funny and what the television censors of the 1950s would allow were often two different things.
"I've actually got a program note that mentions the language because people in Augusta aren't used to hearing this kind of thing on the stage," he said. "It's not intended to shock, though. This is just a little slice of reality, a fly-on-the-wall view of these writers' lives."
Mr. Walpert said that glimpse behind the curtain, always a popular theatrical subject, is a large part of the play's appeal.
"Why does everyone want a backstage pass to a concert?" he asked. "It's because people want to know what goes on back there. It's the same reason reality TV is so popular. People want to be where the action is. This transports them to a place they wouldn't normally have access to."
What: Laughter on the 23rd Floor, presented by the Fort Gordon Dinner Theatre
When: 7 tonight and Saturday night and July 20-21 and 26-28
Where: Fort Gordon Dinner Theatre
Admission: $24-$27Phone: 793-8552
Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or firstname.lastname@example.org.