Silly 'Room Service' delivers confusion Theater review

September 05, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

In turning the 1930s comedy "Room Service" into a play-within-a-play, the Flying Karamazov Brothers have made a farce of a farce.

In the course of this season opener at Washington's Arena Stage, the four wild-and-crazies who call themselves the Flying Karamazov Brothers -- though none bears that surname, they are not brothers and they juggle instead of fly -- mime a cat fight, play three-card monte, spritz the audience with water and, of course, juggle. The result is, at its best, inspired silliness, and at its less than best, ridiculously confusing.

Hidden somewhere in all the high jinks is the classic American farce by John Murray and Allen Boretz about a broke theatrical producer trying to stay one step ahead of his creditors and mount a play.

In the current version, imported from A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle, the Karamazovs are mounting a production of "Room Service." In other words, this is a play about mounting a play about mounting a play.

If that sounds confusing, consider that the four Karamazovs play a dozen roles, with several characters portrayed, at various times, by two or more actors. The list of cast and characters in the program has so many intertwining lines, extending from the actors' names to the characters, it looks like a game of Cat's Cradle. Trying to figure out exactly who's who and what's up at almost any given moment is an exercise in futility.

On the other hand, if you just sit back and let the silliness wash over you, "Room Service" dishes up a giddier serving of light entertainment than you're apt to find at most regional theaters. And there is precedent for the Karamazovs' antics. After all, the Marx Brothers turned this material into a movie in 1939.

On stage, the Karamazovs' mustachioed Paul Magid -- who helped adapt the script along with director Robert Woodruff -- pays homage to the movie by donning Groucho-esque black-rimmed glasses and admitting he's always wanted to play Groucho. For most of the evening, Magid assumes Groucho's movie role of the theatrical producer (that is, when he isn't playing the irate manager of the hotel where the theatrical company is freeloading -- a role also played by all three other Karamazovs).

Michael Preston (he's the skinny Karamazov) is at his funniest in the dual roles of the company's playwright and lead actress, particularly when he uses the same gestures to portray both. Sam Williams (the balding, rotund Karamazov) is especially amusing as a Russian waiter who's really a frustrated actor. And Howard Jay Patterson excels at quick changes -- literally a flip of the skirt -- transforming himself from an actress to an egomaniacal director.

But seeing how the Karamazovs manage to cram juggling into the script, not to mention watching the juggling itself, is the most entertaining part of the evening. They turn tossing Indian clubs into a musical-chairs-style elimination bout when no one wants to play a particular role; they combine juggling and drumming into a percussive melody in the spirited finale. Juggling is like breathing to these guys. So the audience can't help but laugh when four cantaloupes appear and the Karamazovs surprisingly eat them, instead of juggle them.

In an interview with playwrights Murray and Boretz before a "Room Service" revival played at the Mechanic Theatre a number of years ago, Boretz told me he thought the Marx Brothers movie was "a terrible picture" that had nothing to do with the play. Though the Karamazovs' version has won the approval of Boretz's widow, it, too, is at its best when it has little or nothing to do with the play.

'Room Service'

Where: Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. S.W., Washington

When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; selected matinees 2: 30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, noon Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Through Oct. 19

Tickets: $26-$45

Call: 202-488-3300

Pub Date: 9/05/97

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