By Gwen Rice, Special to OnMilwaukee   Published Nov 25, 2019 at 2:01 PM

Neil Simon has mined his own life experiences for his art many times, and the results have been heartwarming and sometimes hysterical with plays such as the trilogy "Brighton Beach Memoirs," "Biloxi Blues" and "Broadway Bound." One of the nation’s most prolific and most consistently entertaining playwrights, Simon was a junior comedy writer on Sid Caesar’s "Your Show of Shows" – the basis for his 1993 comedy "Laughter on the 23rd Floor," presented by Next Act Theatre through Dec. 15.

Directed by Ed Morgan, "Laughter" revisits the writers’ room of a weekly variety TV program in the early 1950s. The show’s star, Max Prince (David Cecsarini), worries about ratings and whether his more sophisticated comedy will play in Peoria. Meanwhile, the writers bicker, talk politics and struggle week after week to produce great television.

With characters based loosely on Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner and other comedy legends, the show is filled with witty repartee that feels like part of the writers’ natural patter – always setting up a punch line. Simon’s adorable stand-in, Lucas Brickman, speaks directly to the audience and adds some personal narrative between scenes. Zach Thomas Woods fills this role nicely, portraying an earnest, wide-eyed, novice writer who comes into the office early and stays late, trying to impress the rest of the staff so he can earn a permanent spot on the comedy team.

Playing the head writer Val, Mohammed N. ElBsat uses a pronounced Russian accent to great comedic effect. He worries about Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s blacklist while corralling the writers to get this week’s sketches on paper. His chronically late colleague, Ira (Adam Qutaishat), is also the office hypochondriac; he complains about a new malady each day. Dylan Bolin is the chain-smoking Irishman who dreams of leaving New York for Hollywood. Rick Pendzich plays Milt, the insecure writer who talks about taking care of his wife and kids, but keeps a mistress or two on the side and tries hard not to offend his boss.

As the mercurial, troubled comedy genius Max, David Cecsarini is in top form playing both ends of his character’s mood swings. His Marlon Brando-as-Julius Caesar performance while trying out a sketch is inspired. Likewise, his desperation to keep the show on the air is palpable. 

The only woman in the writer’s room, Karen Estrada’s Carol is relegated to playing mother to the unruly and often profane group of men-children. Her only funny lines revolve around her enormous (and strangely misshapen) pregnant belly in the second half of the show. In contrast to the wacky antics and more developed male characters onstage, the two women in the show – Carol and the young, naïve secretary Helen (Lindsay Webster) – are woefully underwritten. 

Ultimately the arc of the play is much more serious than a sketch this writers’ room would have produced. Max Prince is hanging on to his show — and his life — by a thread. Downing copious amounts of alcohol and tranquilizers each night to keep his demons at bay, Prince’s career unravels as network executives interfere with his creative choices, his timeslot, his budget and his brand. His bizarre behavior increases as the show’s future dims. The audience knows the TV show is doomed long before the final scene, when it’s finally announced to the writing staff.

Under Edward Morgan’s direction, the play starts out slowly and loses momentum as it goes on. On the impressively detailed, sprawling office set by Rick Rasmussen, the actors stay in their assigned seats for much of the show, making the lively group of characters surprisingly static. And for a play about making comedy, the tone of the piece is surprisingly somber, leaning into the alarming politics of McCarthyism and the blacklist, and telegraphing the end of a heady era in showbusiness. 

In the end, "Laughter" is a bittersweet snapshot of a bygone era and an homage to the pioneers of television. Embodied by a top-notch cast, the world behind "Your Show of Shows" is well worth seeing even if audience members have never heard of Sid Caesar.