According to an old song, there’s a broken heart for every light on Broadway.
There’s also a lot of humor to be mined from all that disappointment, all those shattered dreams littering the theater industry, where producers scramble for backers, playwrights dream way too big, and aspiring actors will leap at any opportunity.
Whether “Room Service,” the 1937 farce by John Murray and Allen Boretz, is the best comedy to be inspired by this volatile milieu can be debated. The work, which has been given a welcome, if spotty, revival by Vagabond Players, certainly creaks in places. Some jokes that might have had audiences howling way back when may generate only ripples now.
But Murray and Boretz effectively captured, even celebrated, the flavor of Depression-era Broadway, when a lot of theater folk didn’t even have a shoestring to live on, but everything seemed possible and worth trying — if only you could stay one step ahead of the vultures and the philistines.
The play, which was adapted into one of the Marx Brothers' lesser movies, is set entirely in a room at the White Way Hotel. There, would-be big shot producer Gordon Miller is unable to pay his bill, or that of his 22-member cast also staying there, all of them working toward the opening of what they are sure will be a hit show — an epic history-of-America-told-through-immigrant-eyes titled “Godspeed.”
The chances for a smash may be pretty slim, especially as the hotel management intensifies the pressure for payment, but who cares? Even the room service waiter, Sasha Smirnoff, a frustrated former star of the Russian stage, wants in on the act, despite Miller’s advice to stick to his day job: “Most actors would be tickled to death to get as close to a lamb chop as you.”
In short order, Miller’s room is a hive of frantic activity, with each knock at the door liable to set off fresh panic. The hotel manager, Miller’s brother-in-law, Joe Gribble (you gotta love the names) comes increasingly unglued as the situation gets stranger.
Throw in a moose head, a guy from a collection agency, an emissary from a potential backer, and some iodine, and you end up with complications more plentiful than Gideon Bibles in this hotel. Tables keep getting turned on everyone, and the slapstick slips into high gear. That, at least, is the theory.
Farce needs constant fuel in the form of perfectly timed dialogue and shtick. It should seem as if no one has time to breathe. On opening night, the Vagabond production, directed by Steve Goldklang and featuring a nicely evocative set by Roy Steinman, could have used a much faster pace and, from some of the cast, much snappier delivery. The performance felt long.
That said, there’s a good likelihood that the staging will hit its mark as the run proceeds. The already strong passengers on this zany roller-coaster should only get sturdier, and that might help pull the weaker ones up a notch as well.
Eric C. Stein needs just a bit more bite to his lines, a bit more abandon in his physical movements, to make a thoroughly manic Miller. Ian Bonds is a hoot as Gribble, all nerves and twitches.
Don Kammann, who sports the most colorful New York accent in the bunch, proves very funny as the aptly named Faker, one of Miller’s associates.
Greg Jericho scores comic points as Leo Davis, the dweeby playwright who arrives from far off, much saner Oswego, penniless and clueless. The actor just needs to tighten the delivery.
Peter Jensen, as a beleaguered hotel honcho, shakes up the whole production with some great bellowing (he is a Sun colleague, by the way, and a lot quieter in the office). Also showing potential in the large ensemble are Mark Wible as Smirnoff and Larry Malkus as a stage director who imagines a new kind of theater — “just scenery and critics” (an idea I find strangely intriguing)."Room Service" runs through May 12.