Most of us know Room Service as a film vehicle for the Marx Brothers. By reputation it's one of their worst movies because Groucho, Chico and Harpo had to play essentially real people rather than their iconic characters. It's fascinating, therefore, to go back to the original source material – the hit Broadway play – and see what was there before it was turned into hash. That opportunity has been provided in the impeccable Pecadillo Theatre Company's revival of the 1937 John Murray/Allen Boretz comedy.
A farce that doesn't overuse slamming doors, this is a play that surprisingly suggests either an earlier version of The Producers or a later version of The Twentieth Century. In either case, its fun is found in the desperate attempts of a broke and busted theatrical company to put on a play. Remembering that it takes place during the Great Depression, you've got characters without a nickel dreaming big dreams and pulling off big (and little) comic scams in order to see those dreams realized. The basic plot revolves around a producer and his cronies ripping off a big hotel for the basic necessities of food and shelter while trying to get a backer for a play they believe will be their salvation.
Greased with some sparkling New Yorkese in the dialogue, a spiffy set by Chris Jones, and Dan Wackerman's smart direction, including excellent work casting a large company carefully chosen to fit the period, this is an entertaining look at old Broadway. Enjoy the work of David Edwards as the fast-talking producer, the wonderful innocence of the first time playwright in the Big City played by Scott Evans, the face-out-of-time provided by Raymond Thorne (perfect casting!) as the company's possible backer. Most impressive of all is the superbly nuanced supporting performance of Dale Carman as the hotel supervisor caught between his sly producer brother-in-law and his blustering hotel boss (Sterling Coyne).
The night we saw the show, just before it was supposed to start, a woman accidentally fell off the risers at the end of our aisle. She may or may not have broken her ankle but she was clearly in acute pain. EMS was called and the play was delayed for about 45 minutes while we waited for the paramedics to show up. (We won't get into how long it took the ambulance to arrive.) The company was terrific in handling the injured woman and in keeping the audience informed about what was happening. Nonetheless, we overheard a woman behind us say, "They'll have to be really good to get us back after this experience." And they were!
Room Service is scheduled to close on August 5 but one hopes the capacity crowds will keep it going longer.
2 Stars: Treason
The best thing about Treason is its subject matter: the later life of the controversial – okay, the Fascist, anti-Semitic, racist – Ezra Pound. He was an American poet who was, at one time, a literary lion. His reputation fell through the floor, however, when he championed Hitler and Mussolini in the later 1930s and continued to speak out in their favor during World War II. We dare say that most of us know little about Pound except for the general impression that he was, at the very least, a Nazi sympathizer. Beyond that, there is a blank and this play by Sallie Bingham intends to fill in the facts.
We were never bored during Treason because it offers a lot of information new to us about Pound. For instance, he was a sort of Tokyo Rose for the Italians, broadcasting on the radio with anti-American treatises and blaming The Jews for the war, etc. Later, when the war was over, Pound was arrested and charged with treason (hence the title of the play). He was judged, however, to be mentally incompetent to stand trial and spent the better part of the rest of his life in an institution. There were many prominent artists who rallied to his side, including American Poet Laureate Robert Frost whom Pound had mentored. But it wasn't until the charges were dropped against him, more than a dozen years after the war, that Pound managed to be let out of the asylum. He then moved back to Italy.
The play suggests that he was a self-destructive genius. There is no attempt at resurrecting Pound's reputation; his ugly opinions are not whitewashed (so to speak). One wishes, though, that the play were more artful. There is something lumbering about the entire production, as if, in its attempt to tell a complete that the facts got in the way of the truth. Philip Pleasants seems well-suited to the role of Pound but the play is not a comfortable fit for that suit. Martin Platt's direction is straightforward, but the play simply never comes to life.
Treason ends its run on July 29th. It is the last production at the Perry Street Theatre before it gets converted into condos. Talk about treason!
1 ½ Stars: Cloud Tectonics
For some inexplicable reason, Jose Rivera's play Cloud Tectonics has been brought back to life in New York City. We saw it the last time it was here. Believe us when we tell you, once was enough. If you were giving awards for pretentious theater, Cloud Tectonics would be a hands down winner.
This play of magical realism, in which time stands still for some characters and not for others, has characters spouting poetic dialogue left and right. It's hard to get away with language like that unless it's very well-written and delivered by actors with considerable skill. In this case, the writing is self-indulgent and only intermittently effective. Worse, the lead actress, who must carry the brunt of the poetry, is not up to the task. When there are only three actors in the play, you can see you've got a problem. Fredrique Nahami overplays Celestina, the young woman who looks twenty-five but claims to be fifty-four and who has been pregnant for two years. Her performance is whiny and irritating instead of charming. On the other hand, Luis Vega grounds the character of Anibal. He's the young working man who picks Celestina up in an L.A. rainstorm and takes her home for either one night or two years (take your pick). Julio Rivera, who plays Vega's brother, also brings an earthy charm and a very necessary energy when he shows up twice during the course of the play's split time-line.
More compelling than the text of the play are the set by Casey Smith and the lighting design by Paul Hackenmueller. Both evoke the magical realism that the play is after with stylishness that belies the low budget of the production. Director James Phillip Gates gets some humor out of the play and gives the work as much kinetic energy as he can, but some of the monologues are just deadly. From a marketing standpoint, at least, the timing of this production is smart. Rivera, who was Oscar-nominated for his script of The Motorcycle Diaries also has a current production at The Public of his new play School of the Americas. Rent the movie. Go to The Public.
Cloud Tectonics runs through August 5th at The Culture Project, downstairs at 45 Bleecker. Insofar as "time" is concerned, save yours and skip this play.