When a baseball pitcher launches the ball with a reverse spin, sending it curving toward the side of the plate from which it was thrown, it’s called a screwball. (Trust me. I looked it up.) Not surprisingly, the comedy genre that bears its name follows its namesake’s example by taking surprising turns and behaving in entirely unexpected ways. As a result, a screwball comedy guarantees more laughs per minute than just about any other theater or film genre, precisely what 1930s audiences needed in the Depression years which followed the Stock Market Crash.

Room Service, John Murray and Allen Boretz’s 1937 Broadway smash, is just such a comedy, one which fulfills many of the genre’s prerequisites. Rapid-fire repartee, mistaken identities, madcap situations, outrageous supporting characters, and slapstick—all of these are found in Room Service, one of the 1930s’ longest-running Broadway comedies.

Since no Los Angeles theater does ‘30s/’40s revivals with such consistent finesse as Open Fist, it makes perfect sense that their current revival of Room Service turns out to be one of their very best.

Like Light Up The Sky and Stage Door (two other smashing Open Fist revivals), Room Service takes place in the world of “The Theater,” this time centering on the efforts of Broadway producer Gordon Miller (Derek Manson) to stage Godspeed, the rather ambitious/pretentious-sounding debut effort of small town playwright Leo Davis (Dustin Eastman). There’s only one hitch. Miller hasn’t been able to come up with the cash to finance his show.

What he has done so far is to house his entire cast at 42nd Street’s White Way Hotel and rehearse the play in secret, all the while attempting (successfully thus far) to avoid any payment of his rapidly accumulating bills. Having hotel manager Joseph Gribble (Phillip William Brock) as his brother-in-law has till now allowed Miller carte blanche, but all that is about to change.

Miller has only just bid adieu to Russian immigrant Sasha Smirnoff (Elya Baskin), a White Way waiter hoping to revive his acting career on The Great White Way, when Gribble arrives in Miller’s room with the distressing news that hotel executive Gregory Wagner (Charles Dennis) has shown up unexpectedly to audit the hotel’s books.

Miller’s initial solution (in true screwball tradition) is to skip out on the bill, Godspeed director Harry Binion (Joe Liss) and Miller’s assistant Faker Englund (Daniel Escobar) donning as many jackets and slacks as they can hide under their overcoats, the better to exit sans valises. Fortunately, Miller’s girlfriend Christine Marlowe (Laetitia Leon) shows up with the best news a producer could possibly wish for. She’s found a backer for the play!

Before said backer can make his appearance, however, who should show up on Miller’s doorstep but the playwright himself, quite possibly the naïvest small town writer ever to set foot in the Big Apple and with no intention whatsoever of returning to Oswego, NY before making a name for himself in NYC.

Over the course of Room Service’s lickety-split three acts, threats will be made, plots hatched, illnesses (and even a suicide) feigned, a room service meal devoured at record speed by three starving theater artistes, a doctor impersonated, the real doctor tied up and gagged, and much much more, all to the hysterical delight of those fortunate enough to be audience to this comic gem of a production.

Directors Bjørn Johnson and Ron Orbach and the zingy Open Fist cast have clearly done their homework, and done it well. They realize that screwball played too straight can fizzle—and played too broadly can simply seem ridiculous—and it’s precisely in that tricky-to-find middle that Room Service is performed to absolute perfection.

As Miller, the astoundingly versatile Manson proves himself a master of 1930s fast talk and quick wit in the role originated on Broadway by Sam Levene and on the silver screen by Groucho Marx. Scarcely if ever leaving the stage, Miller is the wise-cracking linchpin around whom Room Service revolves, and it’s hard to imagine another L.A. actor with the same blend of comic chops and leading man charisma in the role.

Newcomer Eastman is an utter delight as wide-eyed Leo, playing the role with utmost sincerity and charm. He is, as they say, a find. A trio of supporting characters do bang-up work in the great screwball tradition: Brock (about as colorful a Gribble as can be imagined), Liss (a high-energy treat as Binion), and Escobar (a quirky laugh-getter as Faker). As the ever-ready-to-explode Wagner, a pitch-perfect Dennis seems to have stepped out of 1930s B&W classic and onto the Open Fist Stage. Russian stage and screen vet Baskin is a scene-stealer in the role of Sasha, and Robert Lesko does a great slow burn as Dr. Glass. Ron West and Conor Lane shine in a pair of clearly differentiated dual roles, West as Miller’s “angel” (or perhaps that should be “angels” plural), and Lane as collection agent Hogarth and a bank messenger. Completing the cast terrifically (and adding a double dose of romance, beauty, and feminine charms) are Misses Leon and Jessica Noboa, the latter in the role of Gribble’s secretary Hilda.

Open Fist’s expansive stage allows scenic designer Victoria Profitt to create the kind of large, detailed set usually found only in mid-sized Equity houses, precisely the second-rate theatrical hotel described in Murray and Boretz’s script: flowered wallpaper, cheap lamps, and autographed photos of staged luminaries on the room’s grimy, dingily painted walls. A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s period costumes (mostly 1930s men’s suits in varying degrees of quality and style, per each character’s personality and economic station) couldn’t be better. Jason Mullen’s lighting design and Peter Carlstedt’s sound design are just right. Colin Campbell’s props, which include a moose head and two stuffed pheasants, are standouts, and (with the exception of an anachronistic coiled phone cord) quite era-appropriate . Kristen Shaw’s men’s hair designs are also period-accurate, though the same cannot be said for the women’s hairdos. (Wigs would do a better job.) Jim Boyle is dramaturge and Kristen Hammack is stage manager.

Produced with loving care by Martha Demson and John Lacy, Room Service comes as a nostalgic-yet-fresh theatrical delight amidst the many World, West Coast, and Los Angeles Premieres filling L.A. stages. “They don’t write’em like they used to” has never been more true.

Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.
–Steven Stanley
January 21, 2011
Photos: Maia Rosenfeld

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