This is a guest post by Erin Elliott Bryan, Community News Editor of the American Jewish World newspaper. This article originally ran as “Finding ‘Laughter’ on Stage” in the May 25, 2012 print version of the newspaper.
According to local actor Ari Hoptman, if you need that extra touch, you go to Ira Stone.
“He’s obnoxious, he’s loud, he’s rude, he comes in late every day,” Hoptman said. “But he’s a brilliant writer.”
And Hoptman should know. Hoptman has portrayed the character of Ira Stone on three previous occasions in the Neil Simon comedy Laughter on the 23rd Floor. His fourth turn is in a new production presented by Park Square Theatre in St. Paul — its first Simon play — that opened June 8.
The play is based on Simon’s own experience working as a television writer in the 1950s on Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour. Each of the characters in Laughteris based on writers with whom Simon worked, including Carl Reiner, Mel Tolkin and Larry Gelbart; the play is presented from the perspective of Lucas Brickman, who is based on Simon himself.
The character of Max Prince, played by Michael Paul Levin, is based on Sid Caesar and Jackie Gleason. Hoptman’s Ira Stone is based on Mel Brooks.
“It’s not really intended to be purely biographical, but all of the writers are based, to some extent, on actual people,” Hoptman said.
According to Park Square Theatre, the play is “filled with wacky fun, colorful characters and classic Catskills humor.” The writers work to create the funniest show possible, while dealing with real problems: budgets, disagreeable network executives, and the Hollywood blacklist and McCarthyism.
“They just want to write funny stuff, but there’s all this other business that they’re forced to deal with,” Hoptman said.
Hoptman has been performing since high school, taking part in theater and choir productions near his home outside of Detroit. He dabbled in stand-up comedy and “terrible poetry” in college at Wayne State University and came to the Twin Cities in 1992 to attend graduate school at the University of Minnesota, where he studied Germanic philology, the “history and development of language.”
Currently, he teaches German at the U of M.
Hoptman has been performing at several theaters in the Twin Cities, and the Minnesota Fringe Festival, since 1997. He was also “The Scream Collector” in an ad campaign for Nickelodeon Universe at Mall of America and played the role of Professor Arlen Finkle in A Serious Man, directed by St. Louis Park natives Joel and Ethan Coen.
“That was great fun, it was a very rewarding experience,” Hoptman said of the film. “I just had a great time on the set.”
Right now, Hoptman is focused on his role in Laughter on the 23rd Floor, which he says portrays the “so-called Golden Age of Television.” Though he describes the play as “very funny,” Hoptman does caution audiences that the language is “very frank.”
“It may not be for young kids, it may not be for grandma and grandpa,” Hoptman said. “It’s not meant to be an educational play, but you do learn things about the period, and television and how it works. And things you may not expect.”
Laughter on the 23rd Floor by Neil Simon will be staged June 8–July 8 (previews begin June 1) at Park Square Theatre, 20 W. Seventh Place, St. Paul. For tickets and information, call 651-291-7005 or visit:www.parksquaretheatre.org.