WESTPORT — For its final production of the season Westport Country Playhouse has chosen a 1937 work by the team of John Murray and Allen Boretz. According to Director Mark Lamos, Room Service, which ran for 500 performances and was then made into a film starring the Marx Brothers, is a classic American comic farce, and a fitting way to close out the year.
But there were only four doors in John Arnone’s set of a Broadway hotel room, whereas a farce always seems to have at least five. And while the bathroom and closet each played a part in the plot, it didn’t entail continually stuffing people inside in order to hide them, the way most farces seem to work.
So while there were plenty of frantic machinations on the part of the main characters, there were also some serious issues being addressed: namely the desperate need for enough money to cover the costs of putting on a play, and the disconnect between struggling idealists, who want to mount serious drama, and the conniving realists who have the chutzpah to make it happen.
Ben Steinfeld is Gordon Miller in the Westport production. Miller is the producer who has holed up in Broadway’s White Way Hotel for seven weeks, feeding his entire cast via room service, while he wheels and deals trying to find financial backing in the dark days of the Great Depression.
David Beach is Miller’s brother-in-law, Joe Gribble, the hotel’s assistant manager who was persuaded to let Miller stay on the promise of a future payoff when the play becomes a smash hit. Michael McCormick is Gregory Wagner, the bad-tempered auditor, who is outraged over the size of the bill Miller has been allowed to run up, and who wants to kick the entire company onto the street.
Eric Bryant is Leo Davis, the young man from Oswego, who has arrived in the Big Apple for the first time in his life, in order to see his play open on Broadway. While he waits for the money that he hopes will be coming at any moment, Miller — along with cohorts Harry Binion (the director, played by Jim Bracchitta), Faker Englund (a personal assistant/basic thug, portrayed by Richard Ruiz) and Christine Marlowe (Miller’s sweetheart, brought to life by Zoë Winters) — uses Leo as a pawn in his ongoing battle of wits with Wagner. This entails hocking all his possessions including the frame from his mother’s picture, painting him with spots to simulate measles (you can’t throw a sick man on the street!), and even pretending he is dead, forcing everyone in the room to bow their heads and sing hymns.
Some of this is pretty funny, and I must say that the two teenagers we brought with us were convulsed with giggles for most of the evening. At the same time, it is significant that another Leo play, Godspeed, is a serious work dealing with poverty and family and the resilience of the American dream, channeling the kinds of serious theater being produced at that time by the likes of Elmer Rice, Clifford Odets, and Sydney Howard.
The conniving trio played by the Marx brothers in the film version of this story’s telling are portrayed in Westport with more psychological realism than gross exaggeration. Thus this production of Room Service gives a comic treatment to the unfunny realities of trying to be a serious artist, and it is this idea that director Lamos wants us to keep in mind.
Is theater a business to make money (for its backers) or is it a meaningful art form?
The show is a bit long, divided into three acts that average about 35 minutes each, with two intermissions in between. From what I have heard, the timing and delivery have improved considerably since the early performances, and if you’re a fan of the “Let’s put on a show / The show must go on!” genre, you should enjoy this one.
The performance schedule for Room Service, which continues until October 27, is Wednesday through Saturday evenings at 8 pm, with matinees on Wednesday at 2 pm, and Saturday and Sunday at 3. Single tickets start at $30 each; educators and students are eligible for 50% discounts, as are senior citizens with day-of rush tickets.
For more information or tickets, call the box office at 203-227-4177 or (toll-free) 1-888-927-7529; visit the box office at 25 Powers Court in Westport; or go online to www.westportplayhouse.org.