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Theater review: ‘Room Service’ at Open Fist Theatre

January 27, 2011 |  3:35 pm

RoomService1 The best advice a Depression-era Broadway producer can offer a hotel waiter who turns out to be — naturally — an aspiring actor: stay where you are. “Most actors would be tickled to death to get as close to a lamb chop as you.”

With that opening volley, Open Fist Theatre Company’s superb revival of “Room Service,” the 1937 John Murray-Allen Boretz manic backstage farce, is off and running in all its vintage screwball glory. Though known primarily for edgy modernist dramas, Open Fist has demonstrated a remarkable affinity in recent years for period showbiz-themed plays (“Light Up the Sky,” “Stage Door”), and “Room Service” is their best effort yet.

Con artistry runs amok in a run-down Times Square hotel as penniless producer Gordon Miller (Derek Manson) finagles free room and board for his 22-member cast and crew while scraping together financial backing for the new play he’s convinced will be a hit. In a precursor to “The Producers,” Miller has enlisted his timid brother-in-law (Phillip William Brock), the hotel manager, in his schemes, which threaten to unravel with the simultaneous arrivals of the hotel’s humorless, self-important corporate director (Charles Dennis) and the play’s author (Dustin Eastman), a rube from upstate New York. No tactic — not even a fake suicide — is out of bounds as Miller and his cohorts try to out-maneuver their creditors.

The piece could easily evaporate in sheer silliness (a common pitfall in attempted revivals), but co-directors Bjørn Johnson and Ron Orbach captivate with a winning combination of sharp ensemble performances, rapid-fire pacing and period look and feel. 

Authenticity is the ticket as a dozen always capable — and frequently hilarious — performers render vividly defined characters, relying by turns on well-timed physical comedy and sharp-witted wisecracking. 

Anchoring the snappy banter with particularly topical resonance is an underlying desperation born of hard times. Without overplaying its hand, the production illuminates the precarious tightrope of survival in the Great Depression, when Miller’s director (Joe Liss) worries he’ll be evicted from the sidewalk or his leading lady (Laetitia Leon) wonders: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to pay rent like other people?” Watching them face adversity with their wits and ingenuity (rather than a sullen sense of violated entitlement) is a refreshing change of pace.

–- Philip Brandes

“Room Service,” Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 12. $25. (323) 882-6912 or Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Photo: Elya Baskin and Derek Manson. Credit: Maia Rosenfeld.