If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan
Comic “Room Service” on Stage in Westport
They don’t make ‘em like this anymore! The traditional three-act, madcap farce with lots of exposition delivered in act one only to implode in the follow-up acts is pretty much a thing of the past. Such is “Room Service”, the 1930s comedy by John Murray and Allen Boretz that is currently in revival as the final production of the Westport Country Playhouse’s 2013 season.
An unqualified hit in 1937 when it played over 500 performances on Broadway, “Room Service” was then retrofitted as a film vehicle for the Marx Brothers and resulted in one of the Brothers’ lamer vehicles. Perhaps they were too hampered by the demands of the script because there is little of their high velocity lunacy on display in the movie. The play, in theory, seems an ideal fit for Marx madness. Gordon Miller, a fast-talking producer (Ben Steinfeld), has taken over a fleet of rooms at a Manhattan hotel for himself and a large company of actors. His brother-in-law (David Beach) is the hotel’s nervous manager and has cut Gordon some slack, but now the bill has reached $1200 and his boss (Michael McCormick, perfect) is none too pleased. Hilarity, as they say, ensues. Or should.
What makes farce work is the basic humanity of its characters and having something real at stake. At the heart of “Room Service” there is a minor love story but it is given such short shrift in the writing that one can’t get too excited about it. At stake in the play is whether the “show will ever go on” and, though important to its central cast of characters, it is still hard to work up some enthusiasm for this very familiar premise. So what you have in Westport is some fairly good actors working hard (it often shows, unfortunately) to make mediocre comedy spring to life. This may have had them rolling in the aisles in 1937, but with the advent of “Noises Off”, the bar on backstage farces has been raised significantly.
Still, I must admit mine is definitely a minority opinion as my fellow theatergoers were – if not actually rolling -- were at least rocking the Playhouse walls with laughter throughout much of “Room Service”. The parade of stock characters here -- the conniving producer, the wide-eyed playwright, the sweet ingenue, the apoplectic hotel head -- are a familiar bunch and many are handled by comic pros at Westport.
McCormick, a master of the slow-burn, is very funny as each new absurd revelation strikes him like a thunderbolt. Eric Bryant as the naive playwright moves nicely from cautious observer to enthusiastic team player and roly-poly Richard Ruiz conjures up fond memories of the great character actor Richard Castellano with some marvelous bits of fake crying. I found Ben Steinfeld’s producer, however, lacking the charisma and commanding presence to anchor all the zany antics.
John Arnone’s hotel room design does the job with busy wallpaper and numerous doors no doubt reinforced for maximum slamming and Wade Laboissonniere’s costuming is often wittier than the dialogue. Director Mark Lamos does his best to keep this light nonsense humming along, but are two intermissions really necessary? Each act takes about 30 minutes (even though they seem longer). Perhaps playing the whole thing without a break would get it up to a better cruising speed? And, more importantly, get the audience home sooner.
“Room Service” continues at the Westport Playhouse through October 27. For further information or ticket reservations, call the theatre box office at 203.227.4177 or visit: www.westportplayhouse.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.