UW Oshkosh’s theatre department is tackling current national issues through over-the-top humor in its upcoming production of Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” a play centered on a team of comedy writers and their fight against censorship in the ’50s.
Based on Simon’s time as a writer for the TV sketch comedy “Your Show of Shows,” which ran in the early 1950s, “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” addresses the issues writers faced when writing satirical comedy about certain political administrations, such as former U.S. Senator and Wisconsin’s own Joe McCarthy and his large contribution to the spreading of the Red Scare.
Director Merlaine Angwall said since deciding to direct this play, it has only become increasingly relevant, as writers today are forced to do the same as those from Simon’s time, and that’s to find the delicate balance between entertaining humor and poignant observations while still remaining ethical.
“That old saying about those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it applies here in that if the Trump administration wants to curtail the freedom of the press, the next thing is freedom for artists, freedom of speech, and that’s what the arts are,” Angwall said.
Along with the fight against censorship, the play talks about the dwindling appreciation of intellectual art, which Angwall said is an appropriate subject with the ongoing budget cuts many art programs face.
“This [play] has become more timely now, especially with the threats from the Trump administration to cut the funding for National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting,” Angwall said.
The Dean of the College of Letters and Science and actor John Koker said Simon’s humor in “Laugher on the 23rd Floor” has the right mixture of amusement and truth to make such heavy topics enjoyable to address.
“It’s funny, and funny is always relevant,” Koker said. “But there are some themes that are, I won’t say universal, but are still relevant today.”
Actor Garret Johnson said no matter how one feels about the current decisions being made in Washington, the consequences of those decisions are unavoidable.
“Politics will always have some sort of hand in the arts, whether it’s a good one or not,” Johnson said.
What is good, Angwall said, is facing these pressing dilemmas with a sense of humor.
“Good comedy stays the same,” Angwall said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s very old or very new. Good comedy is good comedy.”
Part of that comedy, actor Matthew Beecher said, is the physical humor involved in the show, which ranges from exaggerated character movement to stage combat.
“Capturing the physicality and voice of these characters has been one of the biggest hurdles but I think it will be pretty rewarding when it all comes together,” Beecher said.
With such physical demands, Johnson said establishing the trust and unity in the ensemble has played a large role in creating many of the show’s comedic moments.
“This show has really helped me share the stage and work with other actors,” Johnson said. “I feel like we have a special cast that’s a perfect fit for this show.”
Koker said the high level of energy needed to produce the show’s physical comedy is masked by the cast’s high engery.
“I’m not as young as I used to be, but it’s been fun,” Koker said. “And it’s always the most enjoyable to work with all of these great students in this way.”
With the many different facets of “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” Angwall said she hopes the show’s humor is funny enough to make the audience remember the important points the show makes.
“Some people will just take away the fact that [the play is] a good time and it’s fun and some people will take away the parallels with what’s going on today,” Angwall said. “Either is good, [but] hopefully both.”
“Laugher on the 23rd Floor” runs March 2-4 at 7:30 p.m. and March 5 at 2:00 p.m. in the Fredric March Theatre. Tickets are $5 with student ID.