Based on acclaimed playwright Neil Simon’s experiences while writing for Sid Caesar’s Your Show Of Shows, Laughter On The 23rd Floor takes us behind the scenes of golden age TV comedy in the era of McCarthyism. Actor Damon Lockwood gives us some insights.
Everyone knows Neil Simon. He’s one of the most reverted American playwrights of the 20th century, having penned countless classics of the stage, including The Odd Couple, The Sunshine Boys and Brighton Beach Memoirs. Laughter On The 23rd Floor might be just as good, but its not one of his better known works. Indeed, actor Damon Lockwood was unfamiliar with it before joining the ensemble of the current production by Black Swan State Theatre Company.
“Not this play,” he says. “I didn’t know too much about this play. I knew a couple of his other plays quite well, but not this one, so it was a good result. I was very aware of Simon’s canon of work and what he’s done for the field and always been a bit of a fan, absolutely. In terms of his respecting the audience, that’s what I’ve always liked about his work. He understands what it is to have a very large room full of people paying a lot of money to enjoy themselves. He’s always been very skilled at that kind of theatrical writing, I think.”
Lockwood was drawn by what he calls “the quick turn of phrase,” which he ascribes to both Simon’s skill as a writer and the play’s setting. Laughter takes place in the writing room of a variety show starring the fictional Max Prince (Peter Rowsthorn) and many of the characters are based on the comedy legends that Simon worked with on Your Show Of Shows in the early ‘50s, including Sid Caesar and Carl Reiner. “The narrator in the play was based loosely on himself,” Lockwood explains. “So for him to be around some the comedy writers he was around – I mean, just through osmosis, you know what I mean? If you’re gonna have that level of intelligence and that level of humility, it’s gonna impact your work somehow.”
Lockwood’s character, Ira Stone, is in fact based on the great Mel Brooks, although he avows that knowing that did not influence his performance. “You can’t… I’m, certainly not gonna try and be Mel Brooks, you know what I mean? Just no. It’d leave everyone short-changed. I just have to bring my own interpretation and let (director) Kate Cherry kind of guide it in the direction that she wants. It’s great – it’s a great opportunity, but I don’t think anyone’s coming to see Mel Brooks on stage.”
Refreshingly, when pressed for the most challenging element of the play thus far, Lockwood reveals that it’s all been smooth sailing. “To be completely transparent with you, there hasn’t been a problem yet. I really like it because it’s a large cast and theatre’s the ultimate collaborative artistic pursuit and we all have to look after each other and pay respect to the ensemble nature of the piece. It’s just been a joy, to tell you the truth.”
Laughter On The 23rd Floor runs at the State Theatre Centre from September 6 – 21. For tickets and session times, go to bsstc.com.au.