The premise may sound familiar because it served as the basis of the 1944 Frank Sinatra musical Step Lively,
and has been widely copied. In the depths of the Depression a penniless
but smooth-talking producer, Gordon Miller (Charlo Kirk), and his pals
are holed up in a Times Square hotel with their unpaid, starving crew
and cast, hoping to raise enough money to get their patriotic show, Godspeed,
on the boards. They’re hundreds of dollars in arrears and must use
subterfuge to avoid eviction or confrontation with the management. They
are joined by a naive playwright, Leo Davis (Chris Dwan) from Oswego
(the hick town whose name appears in the original text). An anonymous
moneybags will back them as long as his name is never revealed (uh-oh).
Given that there are four slamming doors and nonstop frenzied action, Room Service could
pass muster as a farce, but up close it’s quite a different animal.
This is a uniquely American show with roots in vaudeville, burlesque
and Yiddish theater. Take 15 minutes of dialogue out of context and you
immediately hear anticipations of Mel Brooks’ The Producers. The humiliation of the self-important hotel medico, Dr. Glass (Ross Baum), could easily be added to the action of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys, itself an essay on ethnic comedy.
This American or Manhattan comedy contrasts sharply with farces from
France (like Georges Feydeau) or Britain (think Ray Cooney) in the
choice of targets. In the European models the quarry is usually
bourgeois pretension and the fate is customarily sexual humiliation,
often, literally, being caught with pants down. What happens to Dr.
Glass, a minor character, does not compare. The most voluble authority
figure at the hotel, Gregory Wagner (Raffy Ganimian), generates more
than his share of laughter but does not end up as badly as he would
have in Feydeau or Cooney.
There’s a widespread misperception that Room Service began as
a vehicle for the Marx Brothers, from the very good reason that they
adapted it for film a year after the Broadway opening. But the
filmmakers shrunk the show by more than half its running time to a
wispy 78 minutes and stripped the talkative Brooklynese Faker Englund
(played here by Robbie Simpson) of all dialogue so he could be turned
into Harpo Marx. Missing also from the Marx Brothers film is the
Depression-era grittiness, which director Robert Moss appears to have
Murray and Boretz might have been unpretentious entertainers, better
known for songs than stage plays, but early in the action they invite
comparison with Russian theater through the émigré waiter Sasha
Smirnoff (Amos VanderPoel). He has studied with Stanislavsky and speaks
of Chekhov with familiarity. It is not too much of a stretch, nor
should it ruin the fun, to think of the starving artists, going without
food for days, as characters borrowed from Nicolai Gogol or Maxim
Gorky. One of the funniest bits, admittedly low comedy, is when the
principals finally get something to eat, with Smirnoff’s help, and they
gorge themselves. Smirnoff loses his waiter job for his generosity, but
he secures a good role in Godspeed.
Were Murray and Boretz still alive they’d probably be gobsmacked to
learn that their laff-riot is being used for instruction in the drama
department of a major university. Times have changed in ways they could
not have anticipated. Nearly all the characters in Room Service are
types once familiar in vaudeville and burlesque, but they have long
since disappeared. Bringing them back is like mastering the grammar of
an extinct language. It takes hard work and an authoritative teacher.
Director Moss grew up an hour away from Times Square when Broadway was
still the people’s theater.
Nearly all the players except for the women are too young for their
roles, but you forget that in 10 minutes. Lori Pasqualino as Christine,
Miller’s girlfriend, starts in the thankless role as a straight woman
to set up gags but leaps forward when given the chance, such as hiding
evidence under the bed or playing a comic nurse to the fake sick man,
playwright Davis. As the character of Christine is cast in the
play-within-the-play of Godspeed, she fools us all by turning
herself into Dolly Madison. Willowy Chelsea Gonzalez starts out merely
as the tall, thin love interest of playwright Davis, but she deftly
navigates some surprising turns.
Although all the characters interact, they tend to spark most as
teams. Producer Miller, director Harry Binion (Brad Koed) and stage
manager Faker Englund are most emphatically not the Marx
Brothers, even if their roles were expropriated in the movie. Charlo
Kirk’s Miller, the nominal romantic lead, doesn’t really tell gags but
generates laughter through his aplomb and capacity for outrageous
schemes. Neither is Koed’s Binion a gagster, but his moments of glory
come in the second and third acts when he reveals an unexpected madcap
side. Simpson’s Faker, on the other hand, speaks with a street accent
and often makes damaging admissions, like citing his prison record.
More supporting characters are purely comic, including four
scene-stealers. Lanky Chris Dwan’s nincompoop playwright Davis gets
laughs even without iodine spots on his face. The hotel management team
of milquetoast Joseph Gribble (Kerry Kazmierowicz) and bully Gregory
(the aforementioned Raffy Ganimian) are a comedy team all by themselves
who could leave Room Service and take their show on the road.
Hulking Peter Hourihan Jr. makes the reactionary Southern senator a
star turn. Awards of meritorious service also go to the aforementioned
Amos VanderPoel as Smirnoff, Nicholas Petrovich as the put-upon Jenkins
and Christopher Hutton as the dogged pawn-shop repossesor.
The odds are that this Syracuse University Drama Department
production looks much snazzier than the 1937 opening. Caroline London’s
period costumes, Gette Levy’s art deco set and Marc Fisher’s superb
lighting made that happen. Models for London’s costumes and Levy’s set,
found in the Storch Theater lobby, invite close investigation.
This production runs through Saturday, April 3. See Times Table for information.