Sunday, September 14, 2014

Theatre: Laughter on the 23rd Floor

Peter Rowsthorn (pic: Gary Marsh)
Black Swan State Theatre Company
by Neil Simon
Directed by Kate Cherry
Designed by Lauren Ross
With Humphrey Bower, Stuart Halusz, Damon Lockwood, Jo Morris, Ben Mortley, Peter Rowsthorn, Igor Sas, Lara Schwerdt and James Sweeny

Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre
Until September 21

We live in a golden age of television comedy, but there was another. And Sid Caesar, as his name suggests, was its king. Caesar, who died early this year, was a masterful comedian with superb comic ideas who gathered around him a pack of talented, ambitious, mainly Jewish, writers to generate a weekly, 90-minute live show, Your Show of Show, that ran over 139 episodes from 1950 to 1954. It dominated the ratings and set many of the parameters for television comedy that still apply today.
You don’t have to spend long on the writer’s floor at NBC in Rockefeller Plaza to hear laughter from other rooms, echoing back down the decades from Seinfeld and 30 Rock.
Neil Simon was one of Caesar’s writers, and this is his love letter to his colleagues, and especially to the unpredictable genius who paid his bills and forged his talent.
For a writer with Simon’s prolific brilliance and life story, the play is a cinch. Put eight comedians in a room, sketch out the times—Joseph McCarthy is shaming the US Senate, Josef Stalin dying in the Kremlin—give them remembered or invented punch lines and let them rip.
You can legitimately accuse Simon of laziness: most of the external storylines peter out, there’s little personal consequence in the central action and there’s a downy sentimental mist over the characters and proceedings. But when everyone’s having this much fun, it’s hard to care very much about it.

That doesn’t mean it was a safe bet for Black Swan and it’s artistic director, Kate Cherry, who’s at the helm of this revival. The people and events in the play are a long time ago now, and a long way away, and we don’t share, and probably never did share, the emotional investment in them that Simon and his Broadway audience did. But Cherry has chosen her people well, and, thanks to a wonderfully refined design by the young Lauren Ross, given them a gorgeous platform on which to work.
Casting is a bit like football recruiting; if Peter Rowsthorn’s first outing for Black Swan, in last year’s Importance of Being Earnest, was like Jack Anthony’s disastrous stint at the Dockers, his return as Caesar (called Max Prince in this roman a clef) is like Buddy Franklin moving to Sydney.
It’s a performance that will surprise and delight audiences who thought they knew him well. He’s handsome, charismatic, explosive and completely believable. If, once in a while, his exuberance runs away with him a little, it’s never for long and doesn’t distract or detract.
Rowsthorn’s tour de force gives the supporting cast wonderful room to move; they can each give full reign to their character’s potential without unbalancing proceedings, and the team of seasoned actors, Humphrey Bower, Stuart Halusz, Damon Lockwood, Jo Morris, Ben Mortley and Igor Sas, with Lara Schwerdt and James Sweeny as the young Neil Simon, doesn’t miss the opportunity.
It’s good for the soul to get to laugh out loud in the theatre, whatever floor it’s on. You should seriously consider taking the lift to the 23rd.

This review appeared in The West Australian 12.9.14

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