Sid Caesar was the king of television comedy in the early 1950s – which pretty much made him the king of comedy as far as North American audiences were concerned.
Unlike Milton Berle – the first sensation of the live-to-air era of television, which began in the late 1940s – Caesar offered something new.
Instead of endlessly recycling old schtick – as ‘Uncle Miltie’ did, albeit with endearing shamelessness – Caesar was an inventive, focused and driven sketch comedian, whose work always seemed fuelled by inner fires.
Rather than relying on punchlines, he broke up viewers by totally immersing himself in whatever he was playing, whether it was lampooning movie genres, simulating other languages in hilarious double talk, or making early explorations of situation comedy.
He became legendary for his work with other performing and writing talents, such as Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris. But, inevitably, his flame burned out, consumed by the struggle to maintain the high standard he’d set, week-in and week-out.
It’s that volatile, pressure-cooker era of early television that White Rock Players Club is revisiting with its production, Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor, directed by Lance Peverley, opening tonight (June 14) and running until June 29 at White Rock’s Playhouse.
One of the playwright’s more autobiographical comedies, the play is inspired by Simon’s days as a staff writer for Caesar. Toiling daily in Manhattan, he was part of a select group of zanies (at one time or another they included Reiner, Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Mel Tolkin, Lucille Kallen, Selma Diamond and Woody Allen) tasked with providing the written framework to showcase the star comic’s manic brilliance.
A sophisticated, urbane group, they were also prey to a mass of very human follies and foibles – aggravated by the insecurity of Caesar himself – and the political climate of an America in the throes of McCarthyism.
In Simon’s fictionalized version, set circa 1953, a similarly wisecracking, highly-strung crew are working for comedy-variety show star ‘Max Prince’ (Nikolas Perry).
They include shy new writer Lucas Brickman (Adrian Shaffer), eccentrically sartorial Milt Fields (Daleal Monjazeb), caustic, ambitious Irish-American Brian Doyle (Yukon DeLeeuw), gloomy Russian emigré Val Slotsky (Charles Buettner), hypochondriac Ira Stone (Callum Henderson), dry-witted boy wonder Kenny Franks (Adam Beggs) and Carol Wyman (Rebekah McEwan), fiercely proud of her role as a writer, gender politics be damned.
Balancing all the battling egos – and trying to maintain some semblance of order in the chaos – is Max’s sweet and naive secretary Helen (Janelle Carss).
As Lucas – the play’s counterpart of Simon himself – Shaffer (memorable from recent Players Club productions of Harvey and A Comedy of Tenors) serves as the audience’s guide into an extraordinary milieu.
Lucas’ lines are also partly framed as reminiscence, which also provides an additional challenge, Shaffer said.
“The role demands that I make the distinction between two different stages in Lucas’ life – playing both in the moment and looking back at it from a long distance. It’s a matter of finding the character within the narrative; showing the audience that this is what’s happening, but also finding the balance between past and present without taking them out of the moment.”
For the versatile actor, choosing roles to audition for is about finding characters that “grasp certain aspects of humanity – something that is true for every person, even though it can be interpreted in different ways.”
“This one is fantastic – it’s a role I didn’t think I was looking for, but I’m loving it.”
Having played characters in the 1940s and 1930s, the chance to evoke the 1950s is also welcome, Shaffer said.
“I love the history of it – history is something I’ve always been enthusiastic about. Any chance to research a certain period is something I jump at. How did people act and speak? It’s not exactly foreign to us, but it’s absolutely fascinating, just looking at the differences.
Shaffer said Lucas is a character who – having gained entree to the rarefied atmosphere of the writers’ room – has achieved everything he has ever dreamed of, yet finds, at the same time, it’s not quite what he imagined.
As Max Prince, Perry said he feels he is playing a man who’s embattled on many levels. And he relates that to the research he has done on the life of Sid Caesar, who not only battled a network that sought to replace his show with less-costly family sitcoms, but also fought his own struggles with alcohol and prescription drug use.
He’s not attempting to re-create the Caesar comedy style for the play, he said, but rather to “play it for the truth” of the character.
“Sid Caesar is Sid Caesar and Max Prince is Max Prince,” Perry – most recently seen in the Royal Canadian Theatre farce Bedfull of Foreigners – said. “I want to play Max. I appreciate him as a boss, a husband and a father. He’s a super-interesting character – a guy who strives to be the best, but also knows that a group of writers are helping keep him there.
For a show written 25 years ago – about times more than 60 years ago – the play has a lot of relevance to the polarized political climate today, Perry said.
“The way it’s written, you’re seeing the parallels between then and now. But it’s also a fun play, with a lot of quick, funny dialogue, about a group of young guys and girls trying to make their way in life and keep as honest as they can.
“I think it’s going to appeal to all age groups – a lot of different demographics are going to see something they can relate to.”
Performances of Laughter on the 23rd Floor are Wednesday to Saturday at 8 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. For tickets ($22, seniors and students $19 – all tickets $10 on Wednesdays), visit whiterockplayers.ca or call 604-536-7535.