|Christopher Morson in Room Service at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug|
On February 3, Seattle's Taproot Theatre opened its 2017 Jewell Mainstage season with the classic comedy Room Service. It sounded as appealing to me as a bowl of hot soup on that rainy, gloomy evening in this particularly dark winter, and it was. It warmed, cheered, nourished, and satisfied, but with different seasonings than I expected. As with real room service, you don't know until you lift off the shiny domed cover whether or not the order will match the image in your mind. This did not quite match mine, but still pleased me.
Knowing a bit about this work's history will help shape your own expectations. Although its promotion includes references to the famous Marx Brothers, attendees need to understand that the original play inspired the 1938 Marx Brothers movie by that name, not the other way around.
|Daniel Stoltenberg, Erwin Galán and Eric Hampton in Room Service at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.|
Written by Allen Boretz and John Murray in 1937, the play Room Service lifted the spirits of audiences during the Great Depression and became a hit. That success led RKO Pictures to buy the rights in order to produce the 1938 film version, using the Marx Brothers. It was not as successful as other films written specifically for them, or as successful as the original play itself, which ran through 500 performances. Yet, if you are a diehard Marx Brothers fan, you might expect this production's actors to imitate that unique brand of silliness, and be disappointed. Let go of that notion and appreciate it for its own merits.
|Mike Spee, Bill Johns, Nikki Visel and Christopher Morson in Room Service at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.|
Like the movie, Taproot's Room Service, directed by Associate Artistic Director Karen Lund, tells the story of an intrepid theater troupe, high on enthusiasm but short on funds as they try to produce a play. Their producer, Gordon Miller (Erwin Galán), is running up huge bills by housing all of them in the White Way Hotel while he waits to find a financial backer. Coincidentally, the manager of the hotel, Joseph Gribble (Mike Spee) is married to Miller's sister. This relationship puts poor Gribble in a most awkward and stressful position, (made all the more tense by Spee's fine acting) especially after hotel company executive, Gladys Wagner (Nikki Visel) arrives to whip the White Way into shape. She has had enough of Miller's overdue bills and threatens to kick out the whole theater company.
Miller, his director, Harry Binion (Daniel Stoltenberg), and his business manager, Faker England (Eric Hampton) prepare to hastily leave town when two things happen that give them hope and complicate matters. The young playwright, small town mama's boy Leo Davis (Christopher Morson) unexpectedly shows up at the hotel, penniless and owing money on his typewriter. With no place to go, he stays in a room shared by others who will exploit him in several ways, stealing the typewriter to buy food, and having him fake a serious illness to prevent their expulsion from the hotel. About the same time, Miller's girlfriend, Christine Marlowe (Melanie Hampton) seems to have found a backer at last.
|Eric Hampton, Melanie Hampton, Daniel Stoltenberg, Erwin Galán and Christopher Moron in Room Service at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.|
That backer, a well-known person, is represented by a woman named Sylvia Jenkins (Kim Morris) who arrives for a meeting with Miller to give him a check (that ultimately bounces because she stops payment). Morris's performance in this role was one of the best and funniest in the production, perfect, really. The combination of Jenkin's gushy, lady-like demeanor and obvious lust for young males creates a delightful and engaging character. Morris has also mastered the art of subtlety, making the role all the more enticing by causing one to wonder if Jenkins is really who she claims to be, or is possibly pulling off a trick of her own. In addition to playing the part of Jenkins, Morris also appeared in the smaller role of Thelma Hogarth, a representative of a collection agency, with equally hilarious results.
The tension in this play arises from several sources. Will the money come through in time to keep the troupe from being thrown out on the street? Who will be fired? Will the staged illness and possible (faked) death of Davis result in scandal against the hotel too great for Wagner to risk, thereby forcing her cooperation? Will Davis see his play be produced and successful, solving all their worries?
|Laura Lee Caudill and Christopher Morson in Room Service at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.|
Many other facets of this fun farce offer good entertainment. A romantic attraction between Davis, and hotel employee Hilda Manney (Laura Lee Caudill) provides awkward moments. A Russian-American actor named Sasha Smirnoff (Bill Johns) wants desperately to audition for a part, to the point of bringing food from the kitchen to the theater troupe's starving leaders in exchange for the opportunity. The talented Johns excelled in this role, as well as three others. He also played Dr. Glass, a bank messenger, and Senator Blake. Stoltenberg, as the director, Binion, was another of my favorites. He could drop a hilarious comment like no one else. Hampton, as business manager Englund, offered some good laughs too, through his goofy character.
Galán, as Miller, the part played by Groucho Marx in the film version, is not Groucho, nor does he need to be. Without the cigar, monotone voice, and animated eyebrows, this very experienced actor did a fine job of creating his own unique version of a lively character who will do anything to produce the play, even if that involves shenanigans.
Taproot Theatre serves up this production of Room Service with the perfect place setting. All action happens within a single hotel room complete with just the right furnishings and multiple doors as props. Much of the show's non-stop action involves them opening and slamming shut as character find themselves locked in or out, coming, going, hiding, and escaping. It's madcap fun.
The costume staff, true to my observations at all Taproot productions, did an outstanding job. Lighting, sound, and stage direction were excellent too.
If the play has any drawbacks at all, it could be those references to the Marx Brothers and some bits of physical comedy that came close to their style, but still fell somewhat short. The production might have tried too hard to replicate that particular zaniness, unnecessarily, since it can stand on its own.
As a comedy, rather than a drama, Room Service delivers a light meal, but one worth enjoying. It also serves to remind us, as our nation faces uncertainty, that humor helps buoy hope and the arts are critical to any society's collective intellectual and emotional well-being. (So please support live theater!)
The show runs through March 1, 2017. In addition to the regular schedule (with more than 20 performances remaining as of the date of this post's publication), the theater offers some special events. One is a Valentine's Day performance at 7:30 on Feb. 14. Intergenerational Matinee at 10 a.m. on Feb. 15, followed by an educational post-play discussion.
Taproot Theatre Company, a professional, no-profit theatre company, is located at 204 N 85th St., Seattle WA 98103
Box office hours are noon-5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Phone (206) 781-9707OX