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`Laughter on the 23rd Floor' Packs in Jokes, Shies From Emotion

LAUGHTER ON THE 23RD FLOOR. Comedy by Neil Simon. Directed by Jerry Zaks. At the Richard Rodgers Theatre.

ONE of the chief criticisms leveled at Neil Simon's playwriting has to do with the fact that his characters speak in jokes, not dialogue. Credibility is sacrificed for the sake of laughs.

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In his new play, ``Laughter on the 23rd Floor,'' based on his early career as a writer in the 1950s for Sid Caesar's ``Your Show of Shows,'' that problem no longer exists.

This is because nearly every character in the play is a jokewriter, so when the witticisms come flying at a fast and furious pace, it seems utterly natural. It is Neil Simon's funniest play in years, and you can sense the fun he must have had in writing it.

Unfortunately, the laughs come at the expense of the depth of emotion that has been so markedly evident in the writer's recent output, even in the flawed ``Jake's Women.'' Simon, who in the last few years has won both a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize for drama, is here again writing at a level of superb craftsmanship but with little feeling.

This is surprising, considering the personal nature of the material. Presumably, this play could be seen as an extension of his autobiographical trilogy: ``Brighton Beach Memoirs,'' ``Biloxi Blues,'' and ``Broadway Bound,'' at the end of which his alter ego, Eugene, goes off to Manhattan to start his first job in television.

Here, the alter ego is named Lucas (Stephen Mailer), and although he narrates the piece and serves as the bridge between the audience and the raucous goings-on, the character is little more than a cipher.

The play is set in 1953, in an office on 57th Street in New York where the writers for the Max Prince television show ply their craft. Of course, we actually see little writing - mostly they bicker and banter, in between mouthfuls of bagels and danish.

Lucas is the junior member of the staff, which also consists of: Milt (Lewis Stadlen), a Groucho-like raconteur who likes to wear a beret to attract attention; Val (Mark Linn-Baker), a Russian emigre who tends to mispronounce his curse words; Brian (J.K. Simmons), the one non-Jewish member of the staff, who is constantly bragging about his movie deal with MGM; Kenny (John Slattery), the only one who seems relatively sane, but whose put-downs are quietly devastating; Carol (Randy Graff), the lone woman who can more than match the boys for vulgarity; and Ira (Ron Orbach), the hypochrondriac.

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The combined lunacy of all these characters doesn't add up to that of Max Prince (Nathan Lane), the star of the show, who presides over his writing staff like an avuncular tyrant. If there is something he doesn't like, he swings his fist through the wall and has the resulting hole framed by Tiffany's. He does a lot of hole punching during the course of the play, because of his fanatical hatred of Joe McCarthy, who was making things difficult for TV producers during that time, and because of the network's demands that he cut back on both the running time of the show and the writing staff.

These various crises constitute the loose plot of the play, which is more concerned with the jokesters' efforts to one-up each other, which they do often and hilariously. There are wall-to-wall laugh lines, and they are delivered by some of the funniest actors on a Broadway stage. Comic acting on an ensemble level doesn't get sharper than this.

Nathan Lane is a standout, even though he is physically different from the bear-like Caesar. Lane is more suited to playing nebbishes than egomaniacs, but his oversized style more than makes up for his diminutiveness, and his manic performance is a marvel of comic invention.

Jerry Zaks, who, like Simon, knows a thing or two about farce, directs with his usual clocklike precision, milking each laugh for maximum effectiveness.

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