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The Clown Ascending 

Beck Center takes a frenetic page from TV's golden age.

The joke's on them: John Busser, Tom Meyrose, and Scott Spence (from left).
  • The joke's on them: John Busser, Tom Meyrose, and Scott Spence (from left).

After 70 seasons, Beck Center for the Arts still breeds theater with the frightening fertility of a Catholic ladies' club. This week, the hoppingest theater emporium west of the Cuyahoga is serving up Neil Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor.

This sharply observed comic character study is an endearing reverie of the divine spark that existed between Sid Caesar and his writers, which helped create one of the great TV comedy shows of all time.

Thank God Beck Center has sprung for a good kosher caterer in lieu of its usual surplus of angelfood cake retreads. It has delivered an eminently satisfying comic buffet, featuring fine helpings of juicy shtick ("What news from Flavius and Lepidus?" "Not well, Flavius has mucus and Lepidus is nauseous"). Also on the table is rich mayhem of Marx Brothers vintage ("You have to see this: Max is playing the saxophone and eating a corned beef sandwich at the same time"). All this is topped off in a showbiz-rich cheesecake ode to the towering eccentricities, talent, and devotion of Max Prince, a thinly disguised Caesar ("That night, Max took us all out to dinner, and he was so unbelievably funny, the tears ran down our faces -- and only some of it was from laughter").

The Odd Couple is Simon's comic testament for the ages, yet Laughter on the 23rd Floor is his most appealing and honest play -- a shining example of the motto "Write what you know," since Simon and his brother were both staff writers on Caesar's weekly Your Show of Shows.

Unlike his adolescent memory plays, Brighton Beach Memoirs and Lost in Yonkers, there are no embarrassing attempts at Chekhovian insight here. Unhappy marriages, blighted mothers, and Holocaust-survivor grandmothers all somehow become high-gloss sitcom when Simon attempts to reach for high drama. In Laughter, though, there isn't a shred of false sentimentality or bathos.

Simon's eager young alter-ego narrator takes the audience on a guided tour of the secret processes behind the guise of effortless genius. In a writing room of 47 years ago, he erects a borscht-belt Camelot, where pixilated knights break into comic jousts to see who can craft the silliest names and find the Holy Grail of the looniest sketch.

This gang of genius misfits is constantly brutalized and cast into the fires of expedience by unimaginative network executives who complain that the show is too sophisticated for the common man. The unseen network executives are equated with the demagoguery of Senator Joseph McCarthy. (In a glorious tirade against NBC's attempt to eviscerate the show, the explosive Max exclaims: "They said, "Give the people shit.' Because they can make money on shit. A potful.")

Simon wisely keeps the play as loose and uninhibited as a 300-pound madam. He refuses to jerry-rig it with false sentiment or a romantic subplot. He wisely keeps the action in the writing room, as his fictionalized counterparts to Show of Shows writers Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Danny Simon, Carl Reiner, and Selma Diamond perform swan dives of eccentricity, do torchy hypochondriac numbers, munch bagels, and give us a privileged view of nascent comic titans at work: in other words, the authentic kosher variation of Carl Reiner's Dick Van Dyke Show.

Thanks to Simon's flawless comic carpentry and knack for making shtick seem like a genuine form of human interaction, he manages to flesh out the fuzzy kinescopes of the '50s. We are transported into the melancholy last flashes of a kinder, gentler, more literate age.

Even though director Carol Dunne is about as Jewish as the Singing Nun, she instills the play with an authentic New York Jewish bounce, bringing to mind the invigorating nervous energy of the best screwball comedies. This is a play that, to fully bloom, needs actors born and bred in the proximity of Broadway, 52nd Street, and the Carnegie Deli. Even if her Midwest Ohio Gentiles seem a bit suburban hinterland around the edges, she is able to elicit from the skilled ensemble a joie de vivre and enough vitality to keep the play alive, thriving, and guffawable.

A few months ago, the plucky acting chicks that compose Red Hen Productions managed a lollipop deconstruction of teen detective Nancy Drew as a lesbian avenger. Now the women have set their beaks on a far more dangerous game: namely, The Merchant of Venice. Since its conception in the days of Queen Elizabeth I, it has become a theatrical weathercock of prevailing social mores.

Now we find Shylock boldly interpreted by Jan Bruml as a feisty Jewish lesbian, somewhere between Barbra Streisand's Yentl and George C. Scott's Patton. In a performance that is alternately fierce and touching, she renders what could have been a grievous stunt into an acting victory. This gender-schizophrenic reinterpretation is like waving a red flag in front of a rabbi. A game cast makes it equal part fascinating kitsch and pungent gender politics.

Rumor has it that directors Jeffery Allen and Harriett Logan will next be casting Mattel's Barbie as Nora in A Doll's House.

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More by Keith A. Joseph

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