If the recent revival of "You Can't Take It With You" at the Kennedy Center has whetted your appetite for 1930s farce--and if you are willing to accept a slightly cruder manifestation of the genre--then you might consider "Room Service," which opened last night at the Eisenhower Theater.
The production, which stars Hal Linden as a two-bit Broadway producer with no bits to his name and a big-budget epic he's dying to get on the boards, is not the answer to anyone's prayers. But it deserves no one's malediction. Once over the hurdle of a sluggish first act (of three), it makes do more than it doesn't.
Admittedly, having Michael Kidd on hand as director fosters certain exuberant expectations. Kidd, after all, was the man who choreographed the unforgettable barn raising in the film "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," and the great whoop-up that was Sadie Hawkins Day in the Broadway musical, "Li'l Abner." Nothing in his staging of "Room Service" is half so memorable, although with four slamming doors and a cast of 14 at his disposal, he manages to impart a general rambunctiousness to the production that will please those who don't necessarily insist, as well, on a consistently high quality of invention.
There are things to be said for the evening. Unlike Peter Falk, his predecessor at the Eisenhower, Linden does not seem so constricted by his television persona. Or maybe it's just that Barney Miller with a twist or two can be made to fit into the cockamamie universe dreamed up by authors John Murray and Allen Boretz. Linden's character is named Gordon Miller, a coincidence that may also be taken as a sign.
The actor's ability to shoot little black darts with his eyes one moment and then assume a choirboy posture just this side of angelic the next is not out of place here. Neither is the charm that is fueled by clear desperation. Gordon Miller, you see, is stranded in a faded room of the White Way Hotel. He and the 22 actors who have been rehearsing a bloated spectacle called "Godspeed" for weeks on the 19th floor, have succeeded only in running up a bill of $1,200 (this is 1937, don't forget) and the hotel management is about to pitch them all out into the street.
It doesn't take a huge imagination to know what will happen: "Godspeed" will turn out to be a surprise hit and the green youth who wrote it will win the heart of the pretty hotel secretary. What counts is getting from here to there, and the path is littered with zany lies and madcap deceptions, practiced by Miller and his various henchmen of the theater. It is nothing for them to strip their young playwright to his boxer shorts, toss him into bed, apply dots of iodine to his cheeks and then cry "measles" to avoid eviction. They'll promise the Russian waiter, a refugee from the Moscow Art Theatre, a part in the play, if he'll wheel them up one last meal from the kitchen. Since they're laboring for the glory of the legitimate theater, they naturally assume that any and all tactics are legitimate, too: a little theft, a dash of forgery, a convenient kidnaping. And when these creatures raise the possibility of a playwright dying on opening night, you'd better believe they're talking literally!
The production stops short of outright surrealism, which is the play's true abode. But there are nuggets of nuttiness strewn about by some adept supporting players: Mark Arnott, as the innocent playwright from Oswego; Peter Vogt, as a sweet thug, who's always shouting, "Hey, I got an idea!"; Kurt Knudson, as the Russian waiter, and Lewis J. Stadlen, who, as the director of "Godspeed," spins another variation on his basic Groucho Marx imitation--a passing reminder, perhaps, that the Marx Brothers had one of their bigger successes with the movie version of "Room Service."
For my money, however, the evening's honors go to the bamboozled hotel staff, trying to maintain law and order in this flea bag. Dick O'Neill, who looks like a chipmunk with its hair parted down the middle, has a splendidly righteous way of putting his paw--er, foot--down. James Gallery is equally impressive as his double-chinned assistant (both chins get beet red with frustration). Even J.R. Horne, as the corpulent hotel doctor, gets his laughs by drawing himself up in full indignation and threatening to remove his shingle from the elevator.
Despite the accumulating madness, however, the play remains fairly hoary in spots and some of the wisecracks are beyond resuscitation.
To single out Kidd for the evening's recurrent sags may not be entirely just. Nonetheless, one line stands out from all the others at the Eisenhower: "A director's work is never done."
ROOM SERVICE. By John Murray and Allen Boretz. Directed by Michael Kidd; set, Robert Cothran; costumes, Lynn Bernay; lighting, Martin Aronstein. With Hal Linden, Lewis J. Stadlen, James Gallery, Dick O'Neil, Mark Arnott, Kurt Knudson, Jacqueline Schultz, Peter Vogt, William Le Massena, J.R. Horne, Christine Baranski. At the Eisenhower Theater through June 25.