One of Simon's several memoir-plays, Laughter on the 23rd Floorrecalls the days when television was golden and the author worked for Sid Caesar alongside the likes of Larry Gelbart and Mel Brooks (both portrayed here, fictionally). There is no story, no plot, no theme, no ideas, no character development and, apart from Caesar — here called Max Prince — no real characters, just a place and time and the generalized stress of falling ratings, network interference, substance abuse (the old-fashioned substances: alcohol, prescription drugs and fatty foods) and the McCarthy era, which is commented upon (for gravitas) but has no direct effect on anyone present. Each of Prince's several writers is given an establishing feature — this one is a hypochondriac, this one wants to go to Hollywood, this one wears funny clothes, this one is a woman, this one is Neil Simon — and a quota of limp gags, but they are all dressed up with nowhere to go. Peri Gilpin gets deeper material, and better lines, on any given episode of Frasier. And so Lane is left to draw us on by the sheer force of his performance, to flesh out Simon's sketch-from-memory, and he does to the extent that he is immensely enjoyable to watch, though not to the extent that we have a meaningful dramatic experience with the person he represents. Still, it's hard to imagine another actor doing any better with it. Currently taking the Zero Mostel part in Mel Brooks' musical stage adaptation of The Producers(as he previously took the Zero Mostel part in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), Lane is a product of the kind of theater that formed many of TV's early clowns, and authentically urban and ethnic; he wears Max Prince's skin like his own. Recommended, therefore, but with reservations.
Likewise, Diane Keaton, a big enough movie star that her small-screen presence is in itself an event, is the engine driving Sister Mary Explains It All, which begins brightly as a comic monologue — the annual Christmas lecture of a slightly dotty control-freak bully for Jesus — and gets messy (literally, metaphorically, aesthetically) in the second half, when four former students arrive to offer unsought criticism and "shocking" revelations, precipitating a crisis of a very theatrical sort. (I will say that there is a gun involved.) The play's bark is somewhat worse than its bite, but it is 20 years old, after all, and may be excused for making points (re: the logical absurdity of strict faith) that have been made often since, though not for not making them better. It's also betrayed by its essential staginess: In a theater, the audience Sister Mary addresses is the actual audience, and the rhythms of the performance depend to a large extent on the accompanying reactions (e.g., laughter) of real people in a room; the pacing here seems off as a result, and the response of the onscreen viewers continually out of phase with one's own. But Keaton is delightful to watch, an actress of great range who never seems to be acting at all. Subverting her innate likability, she is scary and funny and perversely persuasive, even if it doesn't add up to much: The singer, once again, not the song. WHAT ABOUT JOAN | ABC Tuesdays, 9:30 p.m. NEIL SIMON'S LAUGHTER ON THE 23rd FLOOR Showtime | Premieres Saturday, May 26, 8 p.m. SISTER MARY EXPLAINS IT ALL | Showtime Premieres Sunday, May 27, 8 p.m.