The signature circular bulbs outlining the mirrors shined brightly in Leah Walton’s Walnut Street Theatre dressing room in the days leading up to opening night of Laughter on the 23rd Floor.
On the racks hung vintage clothing Walton wears as costumes throughout the Neil Simon play, including a fabulous crimson red jacket-and-skirt combination accessorized with two strings of pearls and a snowflake-shaped brooch she dons for a holiday party scene.
The comedy, which runs from Jan. 17 to March 5, takes the audience inside the writers’ room of a 1950s TV variety show starring comedian Max Prince, a character based on Sid Caesar and originally played on Broadway by Nathan Lane.
Walton plays Carol, a character based on Lucille Kallen and Selma Diamond, two women known for being some of the few (if not only) women in the writing room of some of Caesar’s shows, such as Your Show of Shows.
Carol, a Jewish character, is similarly the only woman in the writing room of The Max Prince Show in Laughter.
“It really is an exciting thing to think about, being the only female voice in a room full of men, particularly in the 1950s, and [Carol] really held her own,” said Walton, who grew up Reform and went to synagogue “every day of the week” in upstate New York before moving to Philadelphia in 2004.
Even today, being a female comedy writer is considered a feat. In 1997, Tina Fey became the first female head writer of Saturday Night Live, which had been on the air since 1975. In August 2016, the variety show hired Sarah Schneider as a head writer — only the third woman named to the role in SNL’s 42 years.
And this doesn’t even touch other mainstream television.
The underrepresentation of women in writers’ rooms was something that stuck out to Walton about this play. In addition to her own character, there is just one other female character: Helen, Prince’s secretary, played by Ellie Mooney.
“I would say even today, we have to remember that women are really marginalized, particularly within the theater community,” Walton said. “I mean, this is a play that has two women in it. Granted, it is harkening back to a time where obviously there weren’t many women in the writers’ room, but again theater that is being produced frequently has very few women characters in it or less women in it. So even though it’s something that was true in the 1950s, it’s sadly true today, too.”
In the second act, Walton’s character becomes pregnant, but continues to work — showing her dedication to her passion.
“These wonderful lines within the play that she has about wanting to be considered a real writer and to not sort of be separated from the rest of the writing staff because of her womanhood I think is pretty important,” Walton said.
As the play was written by Simon and its characters are based on real people, including Mel Brooks, it has some noticeable Jewish themes — including an emphasis on humor. As Brooks famously said: “If you don’t laugh you’re going to cry and never stop crying.”
“It’s definitely brought up in scenes in the play,” Walton said. “Ira [based on Brooks] fights with Brian [based on Tony Webster]. Ira, a Jewish character, says that Brian ‘isn’t funny because he’s Catholic’ and ‘Jews are the only people who have humor,’ so it’s a very important part of what we do and talk about.”
Humor is ingrained in Jewish culture, Walton added, notably because of how it pokes fun at darker times in our history.
“It’s the idea of like, we laugh so we don’t cry,” she said. “We have so much pain so we laugh because we don’t want the pain to overwhelm us and I think that’s very true when you think about a people that survived the Inquisition and the Holocaust and they still laugh — it has to do with survival. Because that’s how you beat it.”
Laughter is Walton’s second production with the Walnut Street Theatre. Her first was another Simon play, The Odd Couple.
Walton studied at Ithaca College and at the National Theatre Institute, the Moscow Art Theatre School and at the Gate Theatre in London. About two years ago, she graduated with an MFA in acting from Temple University.
However, there was a time where she quit acting to pursue something a bit different.
After working at the National Theater Institute in Connecticut for a little more than a year, she moved back to upstate New York.
“I started to study privately to go to rabbinical school,” she said. “So I spent about a year and a half studying privately because you can’t just go to rabbinical school, they want to make sure it’s, you know, a calling, not just sort of a flippant thing that you decide. And I’m really glad that I did that because after about a year and a half, I thought, ‘This spirituality is very important to me, but I cannot be a spiritual leader.’ And I felt that I could do a lot of things that I wanted to do in theater, either on the stage or as a teacher or professor, so I kind of moved here in on a whim in 2004 and then stayed.”
In her time in Philadelphia, she’s been nominated for three Barrymore Awards (Philadelphia’s version of the Tonys) and won one.
“I have no musical theater training, none,” she laughed, “and yet I’ve been hired to do a few musicals and — this is so strange — the only times I’ve been nominated for a Barrymore Award has been for musicals.”
Laughter allows her a chance to connect with her character not just as a woman, but a Jewish woman.
“It’s about the idea of being a part of the ensemble,” she said, “that even though she is an ‘other’ as being a woman, she belongs because she’s a Jew, and even though Brian is a man, he does not belong in the way that he is a Catholic. So she finds her way of fitting in and it is through humor and her Jewish identity.”
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