By David A. Rosenberg
1937: China and Japan at war; George VI becomes king of England; civil war in Spain; the Yanks beat the Giants to win the World Series; and, on May 19, “Room Service” opens on Broadway, bringing laughter to Depression-weary audiences for 500 performances.
2013: war in Afghanistan; George’s daughter, Elizabeth, on the English throne; civil war in Syria; the Yanks hide in their dugouts; and, on Oct. 12, a revival of “Room Service” opens at the Westport Country Playhouse, bringing laughter to Shutdown-weary audiences for a three-week run.
Make that “many in the audience.” For some, this stone-faced reviewer among them, there were occasional smiles, a few chuckles and lots of head-scratching. The John Murray/Allen Boretz farce has the requisite doors for slamming (four), sight gags (wolfing down food, a proctology exam) and energy galore, but more cannot be said.
The slow-moving first act eases us into the travails of a Broadway producer holed up with his cast in a Times Square hotel. The incredible premise has him unable to pay rent, even though the hotel manager is his brother-in-law and the play is being rehearsed without full financing or an available theater. The actors, being always in need, have a high old time charging room and board to the impoverished producer.
Object: find an investor while fending off creditors and keeping your fledgling playwright from Oswego happy or, at least, out of the way. That may require his pretending to have measles, a tapeworm or a fatal disease, anything to get through the play’s opening night. Add various types -- the factotum who cries on cue, the hotel’s dyspeptic corporate rep, a Russian actor/waiter, an uptight capitalist, a bumbling senator, a nubile young lady and an ambitious actress.
Sounds like the perfect set-up for farce in the manner of “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” but without that play’s wit and plotting. Farce may be the bastard son of comedy, but it has to be credible. Here, much of the folderol is about as truthful as a politician’s promises.
Beyond that, regard the production. Director Mark Lamos goes for warp speed but his cast is hardly up to the challenge. In the role of the producer, Ben Steinfeld, except for a moment where he tries to levitate himself, is hardly the harried conniver the part calls for.
The veteran Michael McCormick blows a believable gasket as the hotel owner, Peter Von Berg is an amusing Russian, Richard Ruiz a cuddly factotum, Zoe Winters a resourceful actress, Hayley Treider a lively love interest and Eric Bryant a compliant playwright. Coming off best are David Beach as the manager and Jim Bracchitta as the director, whose phony phone call is a highlight.
But no one really draws us into the action. So little is at stake, although these characters would seem to have everything to lose. There is, in other words, an over-all casualness about the evening, despite the trappings of franticness.
John Arnone’s set design is cramped, Russell Champa’s lighting is bright and Wade Laboissonniere’s costumes are in period. But the evening, which starts with a horridly unfunny pre-curtain speech (“turn off cellphones,” etc.), never quite recovers.
Oh, yes, 1937 also saw Connecticut as the first state to issue permanent license plates. See? It wasn’t all bad.