Review: Laughter on the 23rd Floor at Cockpit in Court Summer Theatre

By Yosef Kuperman

Run time: Approx. 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission

(L to R) Alan Berlett as Kenny Fanks, Thomas “Toby” Hessenauer as Max Prince, Chris Cahill as Vlad Slotsky, and John Dignam as Milt Fields Credit: Cockpit in Court

Cockpit in Court Summer Theatre’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor (written by Neil Simon and directed by John D’Amato) is a work of historical fiction, biography, and comedy. I have no personal knowledge of the historical parts, but it’s a great comedy. Expect a witty combination of wordplay, one liners, and slapstick in a world with artistic

notes a la Mad Men.

John D’Amato’s staging deserves a shout-out in Cockpit in Court’s upstairs cabaret  theater, which is an intimate space with small numbered tables (Side note: You can bring food in; no table service). The stage is set up in the round in the center of the room, raised slightly off the ground and the center stage becomes the office for a team of TV comedy writers. Of the four corners of the stage, the characters enter through one, throw stuff out the window at the end of another, scribble on a third, and literally punch through the fourth. D’Amato uses the space effectively and the ensemble moves around so well you never feel anyone’s got their back to you.

Laughter’s core comedy derives from a combination of slapstick antics and the different eccentric writers (the funniest is Tirrell Bethel as Ira Stone) playing off each other and their boss —Max Prince (Thomas Hessenauer). Max Prince is a substance-abusing and angry star who’s losing his touch. He can barely understand what happens around him and lives in a semi-delusion world of cryptic classical allusion, paranoia about NBC cutting his show, and rage. However, he loves his show and his writers, and doesn’t want to fire his writers even as the show fails. Hessenauer’s performance gives the show the heart the comedy needs.

Jeniffer Skarzinski and John Dignman. Credit: Cockpit in Court

Laughter is also historical fiction set in the 1950s. The Second Red Scare is happening and the characters worry about (and deeply hate) Joseph  McCarthy. Stalin’s death happens, the USSR gets the hydrogen bomb, and, in the end, the characters reference that the Senate censors McCarthy. Though it’s not a huge part of the story, the Neil Simon cleverly leaves it in the background to establish the setting.

Laughter is also thinly veiled biography with Max Prince is a stand-in for Sid Caesar, Ira Stone for Mel Brooks, Lucas (the narrator) for Neil Simon himself, etc. It’s literally one-to-one. Look it up and you’ll see the not-so-well-hidden similarities. I’m not familiar enough with the history to know how well Neil Simon described what “really happened”, but this is his portrayal of his workplace full of famous comedians.

The historic and biographic elements make the show’s most invisible decision leap out at fans of history. Laughter refreshingly uses color blind casting. As a result, a play located in pre-Civil-Rights 1952 has two African-American writers on the team and makes tons of vaguely-racist ethnic-based jokes, and ignores race. The characters in fact rag on Ira Stone (played by African-American Tirrell Bethel) being Jewish (along with other character’s Russian and Irish heritage). From the dialogue, you’d never realize race relations were even a thing and that’s because the playwright’s Lucas (i.e Neil Simon) and Ira Stone (i.e. Mel Brooks or maybe Woody Allen) were Jewish in the original.

The Cast of Laughter on the 23rd Floor. Credit: Cockpit in Court

If you see this play as historical fiction / biography, that casting decision breaks the suspension of disbelief. Race relations were the defining issue of the 1950s. Think Martin Luther King, Brown v. Board of Education, school desegregation, Selma, etc. You can’t set a show in the 1950s and pretend it wasn’t a thing. But that’s exactly what this production does.

This production of Laughter does this because it cares more about the comedy than the history. They cast Tirrell Bethel because he’s an awesome comic actor who turns Ira Stone into the funniest role on set. He makes the comedy pop and that’s more important than accurately portraying racial attitudes in 1952. I watch to be entertained, not educated. You just need to suspend your historic disbelief a little.

For the non-historically inclined, don’t worry. You don’t need to know (or care) about the history to get the jokes. This isn’t historical humor like Death Of Stalin. It’s a story about the antics of TV comedy writers and their half-crazy-but-very-funny boss. The performances are admirable, the script is witty and engaging, and the gives us a rare glimpse into the office of TV comedy writers. It’s got heart and humor and is definitely worth seeing.

Laughter on the 23rd Floor will run through July 1 at Cockpit in Court Summer Theatre, CCBC Essex, Robert and Eleanor Romadka College Center, Cabaret Theatre. For tickets call the box office at 443-840-ARTS (2787) or purchase them online.

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Review: I Hate Hamlet at Dundalk Community Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy
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Running Time: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission
Some of the Baltimore theatre community are going through “A Year of Shakespeare,” producing the Great Bard’s plays or works based on his writing. Dundalk Community Theatre’s latest piece, I Hate Hamlet by Paul Rudnick, Directed by Tom Colonna, with Set Design by Marc W. Smith, and Costume Design by James J. Fasching and Eva Grove is just right if you’re looking for a piece that’s not too heavy but has enough substance to help you learn a little something about a legendary actor of stage and screen and Hamlet, the play by William Shakespeare.
I Hate Hamlet is set John Barrymore’s actual New York City apartment and focuses on Andrew Rally, a successful television actor who is on the horns of a dilemma as he takes on the dream role of Hamlet. All the while, he’s struggling with a girlfriend who’s not budging on her chastity. The ghost of John Barrymore shows up only to convince Rally he’s good enough for the role of Hamlet and can’t go back to the other side until he does. Just as Barrymore has convinced Andrew he’s worthy of the role, his West Coast director friend shows up offering a role in a television pilot and a hefty salary and guaranteed fame to go along with it. Which will he choose? Shakespeare, which arguably makes him a real actor and a project his girlfriend loves, or TV, where he can have fame and fortune?
This is a bit of a biographical play as it gives you a little insight into the life of actor John Barrymore and how he felt about the role of Hamlet and, as a bonus, it explains the character of Hamlet a little to give us a better understanding of the poor fellow who asks the age old question of “to be or not to be.”
Set Design from Marc W. Smith is, in a word, stunning. Smith, who has been designing for the Dundalk Community Stage for many years, absolutely knows every square inch of his stage like the back of his hand and his designs express his knowledge. The authenticity shines through in this set and his use of levels and matching just the right set piece or piece of furniture to compliment the piece is superb and his attention to detail makes for impressive, thoughtful work.
Costume Design by James J. Fasching and Eva Grove is subtle but appropriate for the “living” cast and each character has his or her own unique look from the flashy New York real estate agent to the quirky girlfriend, to the West Coast director, and even John Barrymore himself, who happens to be in costume for Hamlet. Fasching and Grove do a fantastic job costuming these characters with a well thought-out, unassuming wardrobe that the actors seem to be comfortable wearing.
Director Tom Colonna looks to have taken the traditional route with this production (though there’s not really an alternative to the traditional) and he keeps the story moving along. His vision is a bit dicey as I couldn’t decipher if this show is about Andrew, the rising star or John Barrymore, the legendary star, but either way, the simple message of “believe in yourself” is somewhat clear, if you look close enough. The casting is a bit curious as the balance between Thomas “Toby” Hessenaauer’s confident performance as John Barrymore and Charlie Lidard’s shaky performance as Andrew heavily teeters on the uneven. Just as the pairing of Jennifer Skarzinski’s brilliant and funny portrayal of Felicia to Phil Vannoorbeeck’s inconsistent attempt at Gary. Overall, Colonna does a good job moving the story along, but some of the jokes (or what I think are jokes) are glazed over. For instance, since there’s a supernatural theme to this piece a lot of sound effects were used to portray supernatural happenings, like when a character feels a cold chill that is Barrymore standing behind them waving his hand around the back of their neck. Aside from looking a little corny, the actor’s reactions weren’t big enough and the bit kind of just fell to the wayside. It’s a quirky piece, as it is and a challenge for any director so aside from some minor casting choices, Colonna does admirable job with the piece, in general.
The small ensemble of this piece work very well together and are natural enough to be believable. The characters are individuals and the actors do a great job tackling their roles, overall.
Phil Vannoorbeeck as takes on the role of Gary, the fast talking West Coast director. Now, I think I see what Vannoorbeeck was going for, and he gives 100% to his performance, but it just falls a little flat for me. He seems to overcompensate the carefree personality of his character and comes off as unauthentic. There are times when he keeps the pace up and then he falters and slows down to be not so fast talking. He might want to work on his consistency throughout the piece because he goes from being likable to be a complete ass and I’m not sure whether to grab him by the scruff of the neck and throw him out for being an ass or go and have a beer with him! However, that’s not to say Vannoorbeeck didn’t do a good job because his performance was quite appropriate and like I stated, he gives a great effort and works well with his fellow ensemble members.
Charlie Lidard takes on the role of Andrew, the up and coming television star who, whether he likes it or not, is getting help from the ghost of the legendary John Barrymore. All in all, Lidard does a great job with this role, but he just couldn’t keep my interest for very long. He has a great look for the part but seems scripted and unnatural at times. He works well with his cast mates and his chemistry with them (especially Morgan and Hessenauer) is giving his all, which is absolutely commendable, but perhaps it’s just a weak written character.
Tackling the role of sweet Deidre, the flighty good-natured, naïve girlfriend who holds tightly to her chastity, driving her boyfriend crazy is Emily Morgan. Morgan shines in this role. She plays the role with an authentic sweetness that it almost gives you diabetes and her confidence allows her to make good character choices. She’s comfortable and she gives the character just enough whispiness mixed with compassion to give an authentic, entertaining performance.
Regina Rose as Lillian, the elderly, wise agent to Andrew plays this character very well. Rose’s accent is spot on and fits the character perfectly and she understands the comedy of this piece and her character, not taking it too seriously. She gives a strong, confident performance with a good command of the stage and it’s a joy to watch.
As Felicia, the New York real estate agent, Jennifer Skarzinski is an absolute and undoubted highlight in this piece. She has a fantastic sense of comedy and her timing is on point, every time! Even though a couple of her great one-liners fell on deaf audience ears, she kept it going strong and didn’t falter once. Her stereotypical “New York” accent was spot on and worked well for the character add to the authenticity. Skarzinski gives a natural and comfortable performance giving 110% effort making for an absolutely superb performance.
Thomas “Toby” Hessenauer as the late, great John Barrymore is a standout in this production. He has a great command of the stage, a great comedic timing, and has a clear and bold voice adding to his near flawless performance. Tackling a biographical role has its own set of challenges but Hessenauer, a Baltimore theatre veteran, seems to really understand John Barrymore and is comfortable in this role, giving an excellent performance.
Final thought…I Hate Hamlet at Dundalk Community Theatre is a light, fluffy piece that doesn’t seem to have much of a message (that I took away) other than, perhaps, the cliché of “have faith in yourself and you can do things beyond what you think you can do” but it is a well-presented and, for the most part, well performed piece that has some great one-liners and moves along nicely. Whether you’re unfamiliar with John Barrymore and the work of William Shakespeare or a fan, you’ll enjoy this piece as touches on not only Barrymore’s professional life, but his private, personal side, also, and gives a little insight to this legendary actor, as well as enlightening the audience on the character Hamlet and the play in general.
This is what I thought of Dundalk Community Theatre’s production of I Hate Hamlet… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!
I Hate Hamlet will play through March 5 at Dundalk Community Theatre, 7200 Sollers Point Road, Baltimore, MD. For Tickets, call the box office at 410-840-ARTS (2787) or purchase them online.
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