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A CurtainUp Review
Originally produced in 1937 during the height of the Great Depression, Room Service was a big success, playing for over five hundred performances and inspiring two film versions (one by the Marx Brothers) and a number of revivals both in and out of New York City over the years. Seventy years after its first appearance, one might wonder what it could possibly say to a modern audience--but I'm pleased to report that the Peccadillo's new version is just as funny and relevant today as when the work first appeared, and the time is again just right to see it.
Like most farces, the play relies on snappy dialogue, slapstick comedy and a wickedly fast pace, so thinking too carefully about the convoluted plot isn't recommended. Gordon Miller (David Edwards), a producer, is staying in the hotel of his kind-hearted but perpetually nervous brother-in-law Joseph Gribble (Dale Carman) with the entire cast of his new production, Godspeed. Miller, a blustery fast-talker always on the edge either of success or bankruptcy, is convinced that his new play will finally get him clear of his debts. But in the meantime he has fallen even deeper in debt to the hotel, and the simultaneous arrival of the playwright Leo Davis (Scott Evans) and Gribble's boss Gregory Wagner (Sterling Coyne), who has strict instructions to get the hotel's finances in order, bring the situation to a boiling point. Miller has somehow to find a backer for the play, keep Davis from deserting for a rival producer, and Wagner from throwing him and his cast out on their ear. Predictably, all of this has to happen within twenty-four hours.
It all looks crazy and manic (and the set of Miller's hotel room, expertly designed by Chris Jones, has the appropriate amount of slamming doors to heighten the tension), but this apparent chaos masks a tightly written play and exceptional direction by Wackerman. It's always funny, yet rarely awkward. . . a difficult thing to pull off in a farce under any circumstances. And it's all made better by the play's physicality which is a daring gamble that pays off brilliantly. Characters pull on and take off whole wardrobes of clothes, come out dripping wet from half-completed showers, and eat real hotel meals. Done wrong this could seem amateurish to the extreme, but here it heightens the audience's sense that they are in Miller's hotel room with him watching a host of near disasters and improbable last minute reprieves. (The inside jokes don't hurt either-- eccentric director Harry Binion's (Fred Berman) announcement that he has caught a vision of a whole new art form -- "no audience, no scenery, just a theater filled with critics" -- seemed particularly inspired on press night.)
But even with a good play, fine direction, and good design (the costumes, designed by Gail Cooper-Hecht, are just right), a farce will fall apart without a great cast. . . and it's this which is perhaps the greatest strength of the whole production. Carman and Evans handle their roles with professionalism and taste, and the rest of the actors are almost all just as good. Robert O'Gorman turns in a fine performance as Miller's assistant Faker Englund. Louis Michael Sacco plays both Sasha Smirnoff (the Russian waiter turned actor) and Senator Blake, president of the hotel chain, with surprising effectiveness. Sterling Coyne starts slowly as Wagner but picks up steam as the play goes on. Kim Rachelle Harris plays the role of the actress Christine Marlowe (reference clearly intended) like a woman straight out of a latter-day Great Gatsby, and Berman manages his director Binion with a fine balance of oddity and charm.
The best performance of all comes from Edwards, who is simply brilliant. If his portrayal of Miller feels as if it's got a lot of Max Bialystock in it, it should, since he played that role in the traveling company of The Producers (even Nathan Lane would admire the combination of roguishness, quick wit and ultimately deep compassion which Edwards brings to his producer). With a lesser performance it would be easy to dismiss or become irritated by his character, but here the audience rightfully roots for him to succeed.
There are some minor hiccups here and there: a couple of the actors don't quite measure up to the rest of the cast, and the show's energy flags slightly towards the end of the second act (of three). However, even bringing this up seems petty in light of the overall quality.
If farce does indeed work best in troubled times, then this seems as good an era as any to revive Room Service.; If you want a reprieve from disturbing reality, go see this exceptional production as soon as possible. This is absolutely as good as it gets.
Background Postscript: The 1937 Broadway version from which the Marx Brothers movie was made was directed by George Abbott starred Sam Levene, Eddie Albert and Betty Field. There was also a 1944 musical film entitled Step Lively which starred Frank Sinatra .
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