Looking for Laughs

David Ellenstein on Neil Simon, “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” and playing Max Prince

Originally published in the November, 2016 issue of the San Diego Jewish Journal

By Natalie Jacobs

The North Coast Repertory Theatre continues this month with what many consider to be Neil Simon’s funniest play ever. In the Solana Beach theater’s production of “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” its own artistic director David Ellenstein plays Max Prince, Simon’s creative depiction of his former boss Sid Caesar. Ellenstein is joined on stage by an ensemble cast of eight other characters who also represent some of the biggest (and Jewiest) names in the early days of comedy.

I spoke with Ellenstein when he was just one week into rehearsals for “Laughter on the 23rd Floor.” Here he shares stories of childhood memories watching “Your Show of Shows” with his dad, his personal history with Neil Simon plays, and how he knew he’d be perfect for the role of Max Prince.

San Diego Jewish Journal: How are you preparing for the role of  Max Prince?

David Ellenstein: Max Prince is based on Sid Caesar and I grew up a huge Sid Caesar fan having had my dad introduce me to “Your Show of Shows,” which was Sid Caesar’s show, when I was probably 8 or 9 years old. They had released something called “10 from Your Show of Shows” which was 10 of the funniest episodes, as a feature film, and my dad took my sister and me and my brother to see it when we were kids and I’ve loved it from them on. So I’ve known Sid Caesar forever. I’ve also done a lot of Neil Simon plays so this is a combination of both. Because Neil Simon, his first big job was as a writer for “Your Show of Shows,” the play is based on his experience as a writer, writing in this room with all these insane crazy people who turned out to be some of the greatest comedy writers we’ve ever had in America.

SDJJ: When you were watching “Your Show of Shows” as a kid, were you aware of Neil Simon as a writer?

DE: I might have been aware of The Odd Couple because I saw the movie when it came out. I was probably, gosh, 10 or 11. Until Simon’s play “Laughter on the 23rdFloor” came out, I didn’t know that Neil Simon, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart, later Woody Allen, were all writers for Sid Caesar. I had no idea about that until probably about ’88 when “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” came out, I never even thought about it.

SDJJ: By that time had you already had experience with Neil Simon plays?

DE: Yeah, I had. I had seen lots of them. I had acted in a couple of them. I acted in the play “Broadway Bound” when it was a new play. I played the brother who’s really Danny Simon, Neil’s brother. “Broadway Bound,” “Brighton Beach Memoir” and “Biloxi Blues” are all kind of autobiographical plays about his family and his experiences growing up. In fact, at the end of “Broadway Bound,” him and his brother had just gotten their first big job to go off and write for what is essentially “Your Show of Shows” because both Danny and Neil were writers on it, that was their first big job. So it’s funny how he wrote right up to that, “Broadway Bound,” and then a few years later he jumped ahead and wrote about what happened in that room.

I like to say “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” is kind of a valentine written to that amazing group of people, the likes of which wouldn’t be seen again in one room. There were so many amazing dynamos who just went off and did so many amazing things. I mean Larry Gelbart went off and he created “M*A*S*H” and he wrote “Tootsie,” I mean tons and tons of stuff. Of course Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner did so many things. It’s kind of astounding to think that they were all throwing things in the pot together for several years.

SDJJ: Once you saw “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” and it pulled back the curtain on how the show was getting made, did that change your appreciation for the show itself?

DE: It just made me understand why I liked it so much, why it was so funny. I just knew that the cast was funny – Imogene Coca, Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner were all really funny people, and I knew the sketches were really funny but it made me understand why they were so funny. They didn’t just come out of people improvising, they came out of this amazing group of writers writing for these actors.

SDJJ: When you were putting this season together for the North Coast Rep, did you know you wanted to play this role of Max Prince?

DE:  Yes, I picked the play with me in mind to act in it. I hadn’t been on stage in two and a half years. I like to get back on stage every two to three years so it was time and I needed to find something that one, I was right for, and two, I would enjoy doing. This one just seemed like a natural, and then the trick was to surround myself with great people.

Each of these roles is really a little gem in its own. I wanted to just have an amazing cast and I think we’ve got it. I think we’ve got some of the very funniest people in San Diego with the addition of some people from out of San Diego just to spice it up.

SDJJ: Do you prefer to do comedy if you’re going to act?

DE: No, I wouldn’t say that. I like both. I’d say probably if I’ve done a comedy last I, I probably want to do a drama next. I did “Chapter Two” last so in a funny kind of way my last role was in Neil Simon, it was the lead in “Chapter Two.” It’s a very different kind of role. I was playing a man who is in mourning for the death of his wife who encounters a new woman and it opens a different chapter in his life. So it’s a different kind of humor. Now I’m playing a very over-the-top, driven, neurotic, crazy man who just comes from a different place. So it’s a different approach. Next time I act I’m probably going to do a drama. I like both. And I like contemporary plays and I like classical plays. I’d love to do a dramatic classical play next time, that would probably be the biggest change for me.

SDJJ: Why did you think you were great for this role?

DE: Because I’m steeped in what it comes from, because I grew up steeped in this kind of comedy. My father knew some of these people. He and some of his friends – because I grew up in show business, my dad was in the business – so there were people in the business around our house, always telling jokes, always wise-cracking. It’s just part of the culture I grew up in. I know it so well. … Also because I can be demonstrative, and you need somebody that can be demonstrative to play this part. And I’m about the same size as Sid Caesar, and not too dissimilar.

SDJJ: Do you see any parallels between how you run the North Coast Rep and how Max Prince runs his show?

DE: I hope not. Max Prince is a wild card. Max Prince relies on the writers in the room that he trusts. Two of them in particular are sort of the wranglers that keep everybody in line so they don’t spin completely out of control. These people bounced off the walls, they threw things out the windows, they set things on fire, anything in the name of trying to come up with humor. Max was not the one who was going to stop them, he was joining in. Whereas I think at North Coast Rep my style is a little more gentle and a little more thoughtful. I hope so anyway.

Max’s writing room in “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” is absolute chaos and out of the chaos they create this really funny stuff. And North Coast Rep actually runs really smoothly. We’ve figured out how to do things in an efficient way, where people don’t get to maxed out. 

SDJJ: When you’re acting in a show that’s directed by someone else, is it hard for you to let go of control and take suggestions?

DE: Yes, I would say yes. I think I straddle that challenge pretty well. But I still do need to put my artistic director hat on when we’re finished with rehearsal and talk about the designs with the director and the designers, and talk about the practicality of doing things. So I do wear multiple hats. 

It’s also very hard for me, you know, as an actor, you take a break, you go outside, you grab something to eat, you have a cup of coffee, you chat with your colleagues. I tend to be up in my office checking emails because I’m running a theater. So it’s challenging that way, to put the focus where it needs to be as an actor. It’s a very specific kind of focus as an actor, and different from that of a director or an artistic director. I can come to work as an artistic director, and even as a director sometimes, grumpy, tired, somewhat disheveled and walk in and still do a good job. As an actor, I can’t do that. I have to be focused and clear and really pinpoint where my energy goes, otherwise I’m not going to do my best job as an actor. It’s a different skill, so that is tricky.

SDJJ: How do you keep it sharp in between? I imagine that’s part of the reason you do it every couple of years.

DE:  That’s exactly why. Well, I’ve done it enough in my life. I was an actor primarily for 30 years. I did 150 plays as an actor. It’s not something you forget how to do. It only takes me the first week or two to get all the way on the bike. It’s something that I’ve done since I was young and something that I’ll do hopefully until I die. So I know how to do it.

SDJJ: Do you agree that “Laughter” is Simon’s funniest?

DE: It’s a wonderful play. It’s one of Neil Simon’s plays that gets done a lot and I would say that’s because it’s possibly the funniest play he ever wrote. It may not be – and I put a caveat on this, because almost all of his plays are really good because he’s a great craftsman – but some people say this may not be his absolute best play but a lot of them will say it may be his funniest play. I do [agree with that] because it completely works. It’s really funny. It may not have the heart…it’s not that it doesn’t have heart, it may not have as much heart as some of what I consider to be his masterpieces. Like I love the play “Broadway Bound” because it’s about him leaving home to go out into the world and about his parents’ break-up. That one may have more heart. It’s not as consistently funny as “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” but it may have a deeper resonance. I’m saying this as a caveat that I still think “Laughter” is a marvelous play, it’s got so many merits to it, but if I listed all my favorite Neil Simon plays it might come in third. I just think of “Broadway Bound” because I was in it twice and I directed it once and I know how deep it goes. This is a different play, it’s a more farcical play than that.