'Room Service' slow to deliver the comedy

Glenn Villa, Manny Lupian, Raffaello Frattura (standing, from left), Lee Johnston II and Stephanie Pluta (seated) star in Sunset Playhouse's "Room Service."

Glenn Villa, Manny Lupian, Raffaello Frattura (standing, from left), Lee Johnston II and Stephanie Pluta (seated) star in Sunset Playhouse's "Room Service."


Published Jan. 22, 2018

Sunset Playhouse’s “Room Service” has a promising pedigree. The 1937 play morphed into the 1938 film starring the Marx Brothers and Lucille Ball.

With that lineup, you’d expect some slapstick, farce and snappy one-liners in the script. While this linear show has some fine comic moments, it generally feels heavy, sluggish and drawn-out.

Three central figures, Miller, Binion and Englund-- played by Groucho, Chico and Harpo, respectively, in the 1938 movie – are handled at Sunset by Glenn Villa, Raffaello Frattura and Manny Lupian. Michael Pocaro is the show’s director.

The action all takes place in a room at the White Way Hotel on Broadway in New York City, where Gordon Miller (Villa), a producer, is preparing for a premiere performance of a new show, along with many members of his company. He has run out of money so has not been paying the hotel bills, much to the dismay of his brother-in-law, Gribble (Scott Korman), who is the hotel’s manager. Miller and his crew have been enjoying their comfortable rooms, eating in the dining room and ordering room service, hoping that a backer will soon emerge to erase the debt.

Glimpses of the Marx Brothers

The hotel auditor, Wagner (Hal Erickson), has gotten wind of the moochers and is ordering them all out. Miller and company try desperately to raise some cash, including hocking the typewriter of the playwright, Leo Davis (Lee Johnston II), who has traveled from Oswego, NY for the show. Young and naïve, Davis, too, is virtually penniless and agrees to stay in Miller’s room.

The company is able to find an anonymous backer for the show, but Miller needs to buy some time to stay in the room until the deal is finalized.  So, he and his cronies disguise Davis as a sick person who can’t be moved. They also concoct a plan to get the room service waiter and wannabe actor, Sasha (Paul Weir), to bring them a free meal in exchange for a chance to audition for the show.

But the done deal has complications and Miller and his crew must hatch even more plans to keep the show from being shut down.

“Room Service” doesn’t have the frenetic pace, mistaken identities, people chasing in and out of doors that some of the classic farces contain. Nor does it have the slapstick and schtick you’d expect from a Marx Brothers show.

Yet, there are some fine comic moments and glimpses of what made that trio so popular.

Erickson excels

For the Sunday matinee I went to, a sleepy audience wasn’t particularly receptive to the comedy. I’m not sure if the fault lies with the performance, a gloomy winter’s day or a less than hilarious script. The show did have its share of line bobbles and some awkward pacing at times.

Some of the funny lines just didn’t register with the audience, like when Christine Marlowe (Stephanie Pluta), Miller’s assistant, says – after the backer’s money comes through -- “It’ll be nice to pay rent like most people.” It’s a funny line, nicely delivered, but it didn’t get the response it should have.

There were a couple scenes that scored high marks on the laugh-o-meter. One of the funniest and most effective scenes was when Weir’s Sasha, the waiter, performs some lines from Davis’ play with Miller, Binion and England playing other parts, including two female roles. Weir fits the Russian waiter role hand in glove, with his convincing accent and flamboyant demeanor.

A fine display of Marx-like comedy is the scene with Davis in bed, sitting up. The doctor (Scott Jaeger) and others try to get him to lie down, which brings his legs up in the air each time. But other bits just fell flat, like the opening of the wrong door.

Erickson left everything out on the stage with his boisterous, constantly agitated portrayal of Wagner, the auditor. After Miller comes up with the money, Wagner’s tone changes from antagonistic to sweet toward Miller, who asks him, “What’s the matter, don’t you trust me?”  With a perfect blend of sarcasm and congeniality, Erickson’s Wagner responds, “Oh, I do.”

Costume magic

There are lots of other subtleties to Erickson’s portrayal of Wagner, including the many emotions he goes through when he realizes he’s been duped again by Miller at the end.  At one point, he picks up a knife with a demonic, deranged look on his face, heading for the bathroom where Miller is, only to come to his senses and retrace his steps.

I also enjoyed the sweet scene with Bourne’s Hilda and Johnston’s Davis as he offers her chocolates, which she gobbles voraciously.  Bourne has a nice way with the comedy, as does Davis, but their relationship was underplayed in the script. Johnston gives a wonderful performance as the young author being bullied by the unscrupulous trio.

I always find something fun and funny in John Roberts’ performances, and he again shows his flair for comedy with his portrayal of the backer’s emissary, Simon Jenkins. His fright at seeing the ram’s head in the hotel room is a delightful bit. Cory Klein also did a nice job with his small roles, segueing from the near-sighted bank messenger to the senator with ease.

Yet, I never felt that there was that snappy comic timing among Villa, Frattura and Lupian in this show, which might have helped get some laughs. Villa’s portrayal is steady, but needed to convey more of an Ali Hakim sleaziness.

A shout out to costume designer Kate Dombrowski for putting together a functional and good-looking wardrobe that several characters had to put on in layers, pack into suitcases and strew about the room, enhancing the comedy. All performers had a good look, befitting their characters.

If you go

Who: Sunset Playhouse

What: “Room Service”

When: Through Feb. 3

Where: 800 Elm Grove Road, Elm Grove

Info/Tickets: sunsetplayhouse.com/262-782-4430