An inside look at the Golden Age of Comedy and the times that surrounded the era will be staged starting tonight at Kent County Theatre Guild’s Patchwork Playhouse.
Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” which hit Broadway in 1993, is about a fictional 1950s TV comedy-variety show based on Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar’s Hour,” both of which Mr. Simon wrote. It tells the story of the shows’ writers and its mercurial star, Max Prince, based on Mr. Caesar and played by John Moller.
It’s also set against Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s blacklist and his controversial search for Communists in the entertainment industry and elsewhere.
Director Patti Gatto said the comedy has often been discussed among guild members but has always been shot down.
“For a long time, people within the guild had been wanting to do the show, and every once in a while, just in the course of conversation, it would come up. ‘Why haven’t we ever done “Laughter on the 23rd Floor”? Oh, you know why. Have you read the script?’ And so it just ends that way,” she said.
“It had been in the rejected bucket for forever. But I read it, and I thought it was funny. A few others thought it was funny. I don’t find it that offensive in this day. And to be honest with you, society hasn’t changed one bit since 1953.”
She likened the play to “12 Angry Men,” which she also directed at the guild in 2016 and which featured many of the same actors as “Laughter” will. It, too, reflects the standards of the day with its attitudes toward women and ethnic stereotypes.
“It’s based on a time so many, many years ago, and yet everything’s still the same. But it’s just flat-out funny,” Ms. Gatto said.
“There are F-bombs being dropped and some racial themes. But when you put those men in the same room together, what do you expect? You can’t whitewash it. It was Neil Simon’s experience on ‘Your Show of Shows,’ period.”
The production includes Mr. Simon’s alter ego, Lucas Brickman, played by Nathan Miller, the newest writer, who introduces most of the other writers and keeps a commentary of the goings-on within the room.
For Mr. Miller, who is onstage for practically the whole show, it’s the first time he’s ever acted. Working behind the scenes for the last couple of years, he finally decided to take the plunge.
“It just kind of hit me one day. ‘OK, well, maybe I’ll audition. I’ll keep thinking about it.’ And then, the pandemic came along, and it was just kind of like, there’s nothing I can do now,” Mr. Miller said.
During a recent Patchwork Whoopee event — during which participants bring their original 10-minute plays and have actors perform them on the guild’s stage — he was asked to join a cast.
“After that, it was kind of, ‘OK, well, maybe I’ll try it.’ So then, I came out for this one when the auditions went up because I knew there were a lot of roles. I didn’t really hold a lot of faith that I was going to get anything. But then, Patti called me and offered me the part,” Mr. Miller said.
As the audience’s guide through the office of a maze of writers, an assistant and the show’s star, a lot of the work is on Mr. Miller’s shoulders.
“It’s harrowing. When I was auditioning, they run through all the parts and everything. And all of the characters have a lot of lines for the most part. They’re all on stage a lot. And I was like, ‘OK, no matter who I get, this is going to be difficult.’ And then, when (Ms. Gatto) called me up, I was like, ‘That’s a lot of monologue.’ But it’s a lot of fun,” he said.
Mr. Miller, who is on active duty at Dover Air Force Base and originally from Washington state, is surrounded by veteran actors who have years of stage experience. He said that has been a big help.
“They have been a lot of really good examples of what to do, especially how to develop a character. You’re not just reading off the script. Having them on stage and being able to see their blocking, it’s really helped me to fill out this character that, up until this point, I never even knew,” he said.
Mr. Moller, one of those veterans, said Mr. Miller is doing a fine job.
“He’s got an innocence, and there’s this wide-eyed quality where he’s kind of caught up in all of it. And that has really worked for his role. He’s been fun to have around. He’s a good addition. The whole cast has really gotten along well, and that’s been a great thing,” he said.
Mr. Moller’s Max Prince is a larger-than-life comedic presence, who battles NBC executives over the staying power of his show, as well as fighting his own paranoia.
“It’s nice to say Neil Simon’s lines and also think about Sid Caesar while you’re saying them,” said Mr. Moller, who noted that Mr. Caesar stars in one of his favorite films, the 1963 classic comedy, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”
“The voice and the face. It’s always in there. We’re playing people who really lived in this. I have a long career in acting, but this is the first time I think I’ve actually played a real person or at least a character based on a real person. He’s fun. He’s interesting.”
Mr. Moller said the character has many layers.
“There is a lot of anger, but you also have to find the heart and how much he cares for the people in the room,” he said.
Comedic barbs fly fast and furious in the show, many of them aimed at or delivered by Carol Wyman, the only female writer in the room, played by Rebekah Kovitz Lee. The take-no-prisoners character is based on a combination of two female writers who worked on the comedy shows, Lucille Kallen and Selma Diamond — known to TV viewers later in her life for her part on “Night Court.”
“I think it’s an important role to have, being the main female character, to say like, ‘Hey, here I am. I am going to make my presence known,” said Ms. Lee, who is making a return to the guild stage after an eight-year absence.
“I went to school and started a family and thought it was time to start doing something for myself again. So I just threw in that New York accent and went for it.”
She said getting the part of Carol on her first return try was gratifying.
“I remember telling my husband, ‘You know what? I don’t care if I don’t get the part. It’s just fun to go up and audition.’ That just brings me so much joy. So I did it. And I remember going home and thinking I did pretty damn good,” Ms. Lee said.
The cast is rounded out by Michael Polo, Steve Caporiccio, Larry Mola, Will McVay, Shelby Bradford and Paul Janiga.
The show starts tonight at 8 and also plays Saturday and July 23, 25, 30 and 31, also at 8, and July 24 at 2 p.m.
Tickets can be purchased here. Patchwork Playhouse is at 140 Roosevelt Ave., Dover.
Folk Hero contest Saturday
On Saturday at 7:30 p.m., the Delaware Friends of Folk will present its monthly coffeehouse at The Underground, 120 N. State St., Dover.
This event marks the start of the 15th annual Folk Hero contest. At this open mic and the following one at the Aug. 21 coffeehouse, three finalists will be selected each night.
The six finalists will then have the opportunity to perform on the Main Stage of the Delmarva Folk Festival on Oct. 1. The winning performer, as determined by an audience vote, will be dubbed the 2021 Delmarva Folk Hero and will open the festival on the Main Stage on Oct. 2. The prize package also includes:
• $100 cash.
• A $50 music store gift card.
• $100 to host next year’s Folk Hero finals.
Sign-ups begin at 7 Saturday. Admission is $5 for members of Delaware Friends of Folk and $7 for nonmembers. Teens will be admitted for half-price, and those 12 and younger will be admitted free. There is no fee for performers. Fresh-brewed coffee, cookies and other snacks will be available.
New this weekend in theaters is LeBron James in “Space Jam: A New Legacy” and the thriller, “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions.”