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Hit farce of 1937 is back

By John BeaufortSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 24, 1986



New York

``Room Service,'' the 1937 hit farce by John Murray and Allen Boretz, has come to town in an appropriately boisterous Roundabout Theatre Company revival. It was directed by Alan Arkin, making a welcome return to the local stage after his screen successes. Mark Hamill stars as shifty, shoestring producer Gordon Miller. The role could hardly be further from the ``Star Wars'' outings with which the movie public has come to identify Mr. Hamill.

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Miller is fighting with all his chutzpah, dauntless determination, and knavery to present a wonderwork called ``Godspeed,'' by young Leo Davis (Keith Reddin), an innocent from Oswego, N.Y. Miller's overriding concern is to avoid eviction from the White Way Hotel in which he and his cast are ensconced.

Miller's brother-in-law, the panicky hotel manager, is urgently pressing for the payment of a $1,200 bill. But Miller's undivided gall is a match for every mounting calamity. Ethics and principles aren't dirty words to Miller. He never heard of either. Let crisis beget crisis. Catastrophe is the mother of improvisation. Miller employs every ruse in the book and quite a few of his own contriving.

``Room Service'' belongs to a genre of entertainments known in their heyday as ``Abbott farces.'' The heyday flourished in the 1930s, and it involved George Abbott variously as producer, director, and co-author. ``Twentieth Century,'' ``Three Men on a Horse,'' ``Boy Meets Girl,'' and ``Brother Rat'' are some of the more memorable examples of Abbott-sponsored hilarity. Mr. Abbott, in his autobiography, recalls being convinced by his then assistant, Garson Kanin, that ``Room Service'' (having been abandoned in Philadelphia by another producer) ``was full of funny stuff and that if I got the story straightened out we would have a hit. He was right.'' And he still is.

The Murray-Boretz collaboration abounds in the zany invention and multiplicity of gags from which farces are made. Central to many of Miller's crafty ploys is the apprehensive but eager beaver, Davis. The neophyte dramatist must, among other things, feign illness and play dead as Miller improvises furiously to stave off disaster by realizing the proceeds from a $15,000 check on which the maker has stopped payment.

The Roundabout Company deserves more than an ``A'' for effort, even though the effort tends to show at times. While farce doesn't seem to be Mr. Hamill's natural habitat, he plays Miller with slickness, energy, and an audacity for which no stratagem is too shameful. Mr. Reddin is appealingly funny as Oswego's gift to the Dramatists Guild. Eugene Troobnick's beleaguered hostelry manager, Kurt Knudson's apoplectic hotel-chain inspector, Pierre Epstein's waiter with a Stanislavsky touch, and Lonny Price's ever-willing ``gofer'' make stalwart contributions to the antics of the performance, comically choreographed by Mr. Arkin. Ann McDonough and Barbara Dana play two of those durable heroines essential to such farces. Andrew Bloch, MacIntyre Dixon, and Timothy Jerome help enliven the shenanigans.

Set designer Daniel Ettinger's hotel room battleground for the Miller campaign recalls the days when the Great White Way was still great. ``Room Service'' was lighted by Barry Arnold and costumed (with some useful comic touches) by A. Christina Giannini. It is scheduled to run through March 16. `Loot'

A first-rate Manhattan Theatre Company cast has taken the measure of Joe Orton's ``Loot'' and is giving the ghoulish foolishness the full parody treatment. A London hit in 1966 and a Broadway flop in 1968, ``Loot'' is one of a handful of plays by the late Orton, whom some critics have rated as one of Britain's major contemporary satirical dramatists.

``Loot'' jibes perversely at sex, death, greed, marriage, and corruption. The macabre plot revolves around newly widowed McLeavy (Charles Keating), piously lethal nurse Fay (Zo"e Wanamaker), and McLeavy's punkish son Hal Zeljko Ivanek. Hal and Dennis (Kevin Bacon) have robbed the bank next to the mortuary where Mrs. McLeavy's funeral is to be held. Her coffin provides one of the hiding places for the loot. Enter Truscott (Joseph Maher), a transparently disguised Scotland Yard detective with a capacity for nitwit deductions and a readiness for bribery.

``Loot'' has plenty of both. As directed by John Tillinger, the actors behave with the loony logic and matter-of-factness requisite for farce. Their efforts notwithstanding, the material scarcely suffices even as comical shock entertainment. John Lee Beatty has designed this production, whose cheerfully flowered wallpaper mocks the grisly props required by Orton's lampoon. The revival, which is scheduled to run through March 9, was lighted by Richard Nelson and costumed by Bill Walker. Why revive ``Loot''? The question is moot.