Westport Country Playhouse ends its 2013 season with the 1937 farce, Room Service, a play that was made into a film starring the Marx Brothers in 1938. While this production has all the ingredients needed to be an equally fun-filled, hilarious night of entertainment, just like that old proverbial pot, it is very slow to come to boil.
With a witty script by John Murray and Allen Boretz, a familiar plot of an unscrupulous producer trying to find a backer for his play while also trying to skip out on paying the hotel bill, and a room full of lots of doors for slamming, I expected to laugh as much as I had for shows like The Producers, Lend Me a Tenor, and Noises Off. Instead, I sat waiting for most of the first and second acts for the laughs to come along and wondering why it just did not seem all that funny.
The entire show takes place in the hotel room of Gordon Miller, the down-on-his luck producer who can’t find a backer for his new show. The set, designed by John Arnone, is very simple and rather drab, which gives the illusion that like Mr. Miller, the hotel is having its own run of bad luck. With a beige pallet, and only hints of red in the art-deco wallpaper, the room looks a little worn out, run-down and faded. There are plenty of doors in this room of course (standard fare for a farce) including a second entrance that is there for some unexplained reason, and of course a closet door for the one standard joke of someone wanting to leave but walking into the closet instead.
The actors all seem to be trying very hard to play their parts, with a few standouts in the cast, but perhaps that is one of the problems. They all seem to be trying hard to live up to their parts. Ben Steinfeld as producer Gordon Miller plays it so straight, without any exaggerated antics, that when he finally does give in and jumps on the stage in a fit of apoplexy, it seems out of character. Eric Bryant, as Leo Davis, the naïve author of the play, is just not believable in his “aw-shucks, country bumpkin in the big city” demeanor although he does seem to whine quite a bit. As does David Beach, as Miller’s brother-in-law and hotel manager, Joseph Gribble. Hayley Treider and Zoë Winters ably play the two female characters in the play, Hilda Manny and Christine Marlow, but their roles are so secondary to the plot that they are easy to overlook.
I did enjoy the performance of Michael McCormick as Gregory Wagner, the hotel auditor who is trying to lock Miller and his actors out of their rooms. He is the villain of the piece, the corporate schmuck who is more concerned with the bottom line than the artists he is trying to kick out of the hotel. And Peter Von Berg does a surprising turn as Sasha Smirnoff, a waiter/wannabe actor, who gives an over-the-top audition for Miller for a part in his play.
The biggest problem with this ensemble seems to be the lack of chemistry and timing. For a good farce to work, the timing needs to be impeccable, and for the entire first act, and most of the second, it felt as if the actors were still warming up to each other. With its slow pace and drawn out exposition, what should have been funny just fell flat. It was not until the second act that the chuckles started, and the real laughs did not come along until the third act. I did enjoy one scene where the starving artists devour a tray of food in seconds during Smirnoff’s audition (I was reminded of Max’s Bialystock’s comment about eating with actors.) A very well timed blanket being pulled away from the seeming corpse of the playwright who did not survive his own fabricated illness brought the biggest guffaw of the evening.
All in all, this play may serve as an interesting piece of theater history. We get to see a little of what it was like to try to put on a play during the Great Depression, and we get a feel for the by-gone era of big, brash Broadway producers. But as a laugh out loud, door slamming night of entertainment, Room Service is a disappointment.
Room Service runs through October 27th at the Westport Country Playhouse. http://www.westportplayhouse.org)