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THEATER REVIEW

'Room' for Improvement

Laguna Playhouse's Stylish Revival Transcends the Writing of This Farce Deeply Rooted in the 1930s

May 14, 1997|JAN HERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAGUNA BEACH — "Room Service," which is getting a big, stylish, knockabout revival at the Laguna Playhouse's Moulton Theater, couldn't be written today. It reflects a bygone era when Broadway played a crowning role in the national culture even as Hollywood was stealing its glory, if not yet its thunder.

This farcical 1937 comedy tracks the con-game shenanigans of a New York producer without a penny to his name who is trying to get a new play on the boards while dodging unpaid hotel bills for himself and his 22 actors. It is filled with vaudeville pranks and a crackpot cast almost as large as the historical play the producer has in mind.

Chief among the characters, besides the producer, are his brother-in-law, a good-natured innocent who manages the hotel; the young playwright, a rube from Oswego who falls in love with the manager's secretary; the director, a supposed theatrical genius; and a corporate martinet who has been sent to the hotel to put it on a sound financial footing.

The complications of the plot are invariably simple-minded but elaborate. They involve feigned suicide, a backer's check that will bounce all the way to California if cashed, and an embargo on room service that is intended to starve the producer and his entourage out of the hotel and keep their bill from going higher.

Director Andrew Barnicle points out in the playhouse's Stage Guide that the show "originally appealed to the escapist demands of its post-Depression audiences." But "while [it was] thoroughly fitted to the '30s," he adds, it "has transcended its era to achieve a lasting place in American theater."

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Given the uncounted "Room Service" revivals done on regional and community stages during the past 60 years, you can't argue with him. Even the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, known for its socially relevant agenda in years past, has scheduled a revival of this John Murray-Allen Boretz comedy for next season.

But when it comes to the quality of the writing, some critics would beg to differ about how transcendental it is. "Room Service" seemed so thoroughly of its time to the legendary Harold Clurman in 1953 that he dismissed a major Broadway reprise of it in a single sentence. "I still found some of it funny," he wrote, "but at best I was amused as by a rather perfunctory joke that someone might tell me on my way out of a restaurant."

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Whether you agree with Clurman or with Brooks Atkinson, who praised the original production as "one of the gustiest pieces of horseplay of the season" will depend on your sense of humor as well as the show.

For my taste, Barnicle has delivered a "Room Service" that is better than the writing and great to look at, thanks to his own impeccable set design, the radiant lighting by Paulie Jenkins and the expert costume design by D. Richard Odle. But the material, which Barnicle milks within an inch of its life, is just not as crisp as the production. And no amount of milking can change that.

With one puzzling exception--Scott Facher, who gives a vague, muffled performance as producer Gordon Miller--the cast offers sharp, highly charged caricatures that are almost always colorful and entertaining.

Garnett Smith stands out as Gregory Wagner, the unctuous martinet who fumes and barks to no effect. And Morgan Rusler excels as Leo Davis, the playwright, whose slack-jawed, pell-mell portrayal suggests someone so dumbfounded that he can never catch up with himself.

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Others who deserve mention are Jeff Paul as director Harry Binion, the worldly wise, would-be problem solver, and Keith Nicholai as Joe Gribble, hotel manager with a heart of gold. Both play their roles straight enough to lend a necessary pinch of reality to the proceedings without losing sight of their comic purpose.

Also notable are Matthew Reidy, the goofy propman; P.M. Howard, the self-dramatizing Russian waiter Sasha; Greg Allen Johnson, who cuts an authoritative figure as the backer; Rom Watson, the sober house doctor; and Jasmin Paul, the producer's pretty girlfriend Chris.

Though the first act seemed slow on opening night, in part because of the play's clunky exposition, the second act zipped along nicely and got the show airborne; the third, while not transcendent, at least had the snap to bring it all home. If not for its lack of wit as a play and a lead actor as vivid as the rest of the cast, I'd have left this "Room Service" a bigger tip.

* "Room Service," Laguna Playhouse's Moulton Theater, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m.; Sun. 7 p.m. Ends June 1. $26-$30. (714) 497-2787. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

P.M. Howard: Sasha Smirnoff

Scott Facher: Gordon Miller

Keith Nicholai: Joseph Gribble

Jeff Paul: Harry Binion

Matthew Reidy: Faker Englund

Jasmin Paul: Christine Marlowe

Morgan Rusler: Leo Davis

Erin Cullin: Hilda Manney

Garnett Smith: Gregory Wagner

Greg Allen Johnson: Simon Jenkins

Dan Cole: Timothy Hogarth

Rom Watson: Dr. Glass

Paul Millet: Bank Messenger

R.E. Goodwin: Sen. Blake

A Laguna Playhouse production of a comedy by John Murray and Allen Boretz. Directed by Andrew Barnicle. Scenic design: Barnicle. Lighting design: Paulie Jenkins. Costume design: D. Richard Odle. Sound design: David Edwards. Stage manager: Nancy Staiger.

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