Saturday, October 15, 2005

Room Service (Cleveland Play House)

Humorous, but not hysterical ‘Room Service’ at CPH

Farce is a theatre or movie form which aims to entertain by developing unlikely, yet often possible situations by use of disguises, mistaken identity and exaggeration. It has a fast-paced plot whose speed usually increases toward the end of the play. Broad physical humor, and deliberate absurdity or nonsense are the lynch pins of farce.

Farce is generally perceived by theatre directors and actors as the most difficult to perform. To be successful, in a farcical performance, actors must look and be ridiculous while doing what looks normal and effortless. To be successful farcical writing, places characters in situations in which they simply can’t escape without some great exaggeration. To contemplate farce in its highest form think Lucille Ball, Danny Kaye and the Marx Brothers. To think well written farce think Kauffman and Hart’s ‘YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU,’ Oscar Wilde’s ‘THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST,’ Noel Coward’s ‘HAY FEVER’ or Neil Simon’s ‘RUMORS’ and the classic British farce, “NOISES OFF.’

‘ROOM SERVICE,’ now on stage at the Cleveland Playhouse, is a farce. Originally a 1937 play, it was transformed into a movie of the same name in 1938. Both the Broadway play and the movie starred the Marx Brothers and Lucille Ball, in one of her first roles.

The story concerns a would-be a Broadway producer trying to stage a depression era play with no money. In order to get this done, he must find a way to pay his enormous hotel bill, rent a theatre, pay the playwright and satisfy bill collectors. In his path he needs to deal with a waiter-but-really-great Russian actor, a just-off-the-bus-from-the- hick-town author, an irate hotel executive, and...., you get the picture.

Interestingly, the film is notable for being the only Marx Brothers film not written especially for them. It is also considered one of their weakest films. As one critic stated, "the Marx Brothers were constrained by having to play characters with a passing resemblance to human beings." In other words, the characters must be bigger than life an the plot must race to its “happily ever after” conclusion.

That lack of bigger-than-life is at the heart of the Play House’s problematic production. There just isn’t enough farce. Yes, there are laughs, but it just doesn’t let loose. It is not madcap. Remember the side-splitting feeling after seeing Lucille Ball stomping on grapes or devouring chocolate candies in her most notable TV shows? Or, Kramer dashing into Jerry’s apartment in many ‘SEINFELD’ episodes? Ever see the slamming door routines in the British farce, ‘NOISES OFF’? Remember Danny Kaye double talking in ‘ME AND THE COLONEL’ or being totally outrageous in ‘THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY?’ Those qualities simply aren’t present in the CPH show.

Part of the problem is director Jeff Steitzer’s casual pacing of the show. This has to be madcap, not languid. Though there are instances of chaos, enough to give hope that once the show gels, there may be a “letting loose,” on opening night hesitant would be the gait description. The quick one-liners are often lost. The snappy dialogue doesn’t snap. The double takes and the ridiculous are often lost. Completely? No, but not enough to make this farce a non-farce!

Several members of the cast get into the right mood. Tom Beckett, as the hotel manager, can hardly keep his feet on the ground. He charges and storms around like an exploding Roman candle firecracker. He is delightful. If only all the other cast members had had their wicks lit like Beckett’s. Mark Alan Gordon plays double duty in their production. Both of his characterizations were right on. His voice cracked, his body quaked, he had a nervous breakdown before our very eyes as the potential backer of the play. He was equally funny as Senator Blake. Even his makeup and hairpieces were overdone to perfection. Greg Thornton almost stole the show as Sasha, the Stanislovsky-trained actor turned waiter. Larry Paulsen’s Faker Englund had some wonderful moments. His mobile face, popping eyes and skinny body well-keyed many of his lines.

On the other hand, Todd Gearhart in the Groucho role, never got beyond his matinee idol good looks. This was a cardboard cut-out performance. No texture, no depth, no bigger than life. In other words, few laughs here. Ronald Thomas Wilson whined his way through the role of the doctor without making the character live. Craig Bockhorn, as Harry, the play’s director, didn’t ever quite develop a characterization. A potentially hysterical moose head bit-laid a large bomb. (Part of this may have been caused by the totally non-real looking moose’s head.)

A potentially hysterical scene in which characters get into piece of clothing after piece of clothing was so slowly done that the humor sapped out of it. Again, a pacing problem. On the other hand, the playwright’s return-from-the-dead segment near the end of the play was delightful.

Ursula Belden’s set complete with realistic room and New York Times Square skyline was both attractive and worked well.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Cleveland Play House’s ‘ROOM SERVICE’ is a smile show. It should have been a hysterically funny show.