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Reviving 'Room Service' Without Some '30s Guests

May 06, 1997|JAN HERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAGUNA BEACH — First things first: "Room Service," which begins previews tonight in a Laguna Playhouse revival at the Moulton Theater, is not the 1938 Marx Brothers movie.

"The play is better than the movie, which has never been considered one of their best," said playhouse artistic director Andrew Barnicle, who is staging and designing the production.

"The movie kind of lays there," he added. "They eliminated or combined the wacky peripheral characters that make the play funny."

These characters come and go like commedia dell'arte zanies, Barnicle explained. "And for a play from the '30s, it's still pretty hip."

Second, he contended that "Room Service" (1937) is not dated, despite its age. "It's an entertainment vehicle," he said. "I'm not going to tell you it has profound social value. It's a farce. But there's a lot of sharp social commentary about the Depression and what it was like to hustle on Broadway to get a play up."

Written for a post-Depression audience as the country was emerging from the worst economic shock in its history, "Room Service" became a self-referential Broadway smash, following a disastrous out-of-town tryout.

The legendary George Abbott took it over as producer and director, after it folded in Philadelphia, and rewrote the John Murray-Allen Boretz script without taking co-author credit.

Abbott also recast the show with actors assembled from other productions he had done recently, among them Eddie Albert from "Brother Rat" and Sam Levene from "Three Men on a Horse."

By the time Abbott was through working it over with rewrites and new stage business, "Room Service" ran for 500 performances, although the consensus was that he never did find a way to strengthen the story itself.

"Here's the basic plot," Barnicle said in a recent interview, sipping his morning coffee at a large desk overlooking the playhouse lobby. "This producer is trying to get his show up. He's got no money and a $1,200 hotel bill he can't pay, and he has 20 actors rehearsing in the building, racking up more bills. They keep moving around to different places.

"The basic villain is the director of the hotel chain who arrives because this particular hotel is in shaky financial condition. It becomes his obsession to prevent the producer from leaving without paying the bill. The hotelier cuts off his room service and locks his door, so he can't get out."

As a farce, of course, "Room Service" has many elaborate complications. A questionable backer turns up, offering $15,000 to finance the production if a part is written into the play for his boss' girlfriend.

"Ironically, that was all [the money] you needed to put a show on Broadway at the time," Barnicle said with a laugh. (Today, that wouldn't pay for the props.)

More chaos sets in when the naive young playwright from Oswego who has come to New York for the first time, falls in love with the hotel manager's secretary; the check is canceled and the hotel management, not knowing it's canceled, lets the producer draw against it. And so the concatenation of events comes full circle: The unwitting hotel boss is tricked into being the show's real backer.

*

The last farce that Barnicle staged, earlier this season, was "Don't Dress for Dinner," a British adaptation of a French boulevard comedy that will return for a June 27 to July 27 run with the same cast.

He has proved to be something of a farce specialist. Of the 13 productions he has directed since taking over as playhouse artistic director from Doug Rowe in 1991, seven (including this one) have been farcical comedies of various kinds. (The others included "The Liar," "What the Butler Saw," "Inspecting Carol," "Rumors" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream.")

He has also directed three serio-comedies ("Bus Stop," "Brighton Beach Memoirs" and "Teachers' Lounge), a tragedy ("Othello"), a musical comedy ("On the Town") and a melodrama ("Gaslight").

The difference between doing drama and comedy, Barnicle said, is largely a matter of approach. With a drama, he's likely to maneuver the actors into a collaboration "so they work off each other and come to their own conclusions," he explained. With a comedy he probably works more technically.

"I know how the [comic] timing is supposed to be. I'll tend to say, 'It needs to work like this. Now you guys figure out how to make it believable.' It's their job to support the role emotionally," he said. "I kind of give them guideposts: 'Here's where I need you at this point.' Or 'Here's what the rhythm in this little sequence should be.'

"There are a lot of vaudeville-type-rhythm jokes in the script for 'Room Service,' because Murray and Boretz both wrote for variety shows. It's not as if you can sit around and interpret that stuff emotionally. You can't feel how it's supposed to be. You need to know where you're going. I tend to know already, so I tell them. And then it's their job to figure out how to make it work for them. Of course, if they can't, we'll switch it around."

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