Cotton candy

Editor's note: Nora FitzGerald, Dallas Observer's stage columnist, is on maternity leave. Longtime Observer contributor P.B. Miller is filling in during her absence.

Theatrical comedy is a tough sell these days--not that it was ever easy.
Finding an audience for comedic theater is even harder now, though, because there's a lot more funny stuff available that you can enjoy without effort or expense than there used to be. Hey, "The Simpsons" are on every night, and there's "Seinfeld," "The Larry Sanders Show," "Cheers" reruns and, towering above these like a mighty colossus, the inimitable humor of Jackie "The Joke Man" Martling on the Howard Stern Show. With all these cows at home to choose from, why buy milk?

The Dallas Theater Center offers an answer with its season-opening production of Room Service, a knockabout farce first produced in 1937. Most people familiar with the play usually remember it from the Marx Brothers' movie version. It's the one where Groucho plays a broke theatrical producer who's managed to keep his company together by quartering them at a Broadway hotel under the pretense that he can pay the considerable freight his players accumulate. The hotel bill mounts as Groucho searches desperately for a backer to bail him out before he and his pals are hauled off to choky by the gendarmes.

The piece was written by Allen Boretz and John Murray, who based it on their own experiences as Broadway gagwriters. It was a big hit that year and commanded the then huge price of about $200,000 when the Marx Brothers bought the rights to the movie. Despite the toll they paid to get it, however, Room Service isn't one of the Marxes' better efforts.

That's what makes the play a curious choice as centerpiece for DTC's 35th anniversary celebration. On the august occasion of a theater's 35th birthday you might expect something a little more...indigestible. It's like serving up an airy cheese souffl at a banquet where the quests are psychologically prepared for a dense and savory ragout. What's more, you tend to question the moxie of a theater when the conservative mayor of the city stands up before the production and reads a proclamation in praise of the place that's larded with 116 "whereases."

But you know what? Even dour, bitter-brained theater critics who are paid to worry about Relevance and all that other ranygazoo have to like this play. It's just too cheerful, anarchic, well-acted, and well-paced to put down.

First of all, it lodges you firmly in an era a heck of a lot more pleasant than our own. That is, the mythical era of 1930s Broadway when gay meant happy and a kind of P.G. Wodehouse sense of innocence and fun pervaded the air. A time when popular songs contained rhymes like "You're Mahatma Gandhi, you're Napoleon brandy," and when a guy was sweet on a gal it meant matrimony.

The mood begins with Hugh Landwehr's set--which contrasts a spacious and uncluttered hotel room scene in the foreground against a busy background featuring the lights and signage of the Great White Way. It's an impressive visual homage to the period that's easy on the eyes, and of course the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Theater Center, for those who may have missed it, could be the most striking piece of architecture in the city.

Before the action begins, there's some trepidation about the Groucho part. You wouldn't think DTC artistic director Richard Hamburger (who directs here) would opt for a straight Groucho imitation complete with painted moustache and bushy eyebrows, but all kinds of irrational fears cross your mind as you gaze at a characterless stage. Fortunately, Robert Dorfman brings his own inflections to the part of impecunious impresario Gordon Miller--though Groucho is clearly echoed in Dorfman's insouciant hips and leering eye rolls. Nobody cracks wise like G. Marx, but Dorfman musters considerable charm and a feisty bantamweight presence that gives the play much of its energy.

Equally good is Ted Davey as Faker, Gordon Miller's rough-edged Guy Friday. Davey sports the popped-eyed expression and general combustibility of Jerry Collona, and he has a nice singing voice, too (you keep waiting for him to bellow, "Oh, my papa!" to the rafters, to no avail, alas). Rainn Wilson, as the greenhorn playwright who has written a musical drama about American history seen through the eyes of a Polish miner, displays a likable gangly presence. Fans of TV's "Peppermint Place" will recognize Jerry Haynes (Mr. Peppermint) doing a very professional turn in a supporting role as a put-upon businessman, and connoisseurs of comic stage swoons will savor the one executed by Christian Clemenson as a dupe of a hotel manager.

Best of all, though, is Harry Murphy as Sasha, a Russian waiter and aspiring actor who craves a part in the production and earns an audition by squirreling Miller and his cohorts some badly needed food. Sasha throws himself into the part of the Polish miner reduced to a Eugene O'Neill-like animal passion by the vagaries of life while Miller and his chums consume the eatables in a kind of gross-out ballet. It's the best comic moment in the play, and one of the best bits in the movie, as well (you may recall the scene where Harpo methodically eats one pea at a time, driving Groucho and Chico up the wall).

In the end, of course, boy gets girl, producer gets play, actor gets part, and even the heavy comes out smiling. The point seems to be that if uptight businessmen and the establishment types would only relax, fork over a little dough, and let theater people do their bit, everything would come up roses for everybody. But since the establishment won't play ball, the kind of scruples that govern regular people are off the board, and theater folk are justified in using any means necessary to attain the greater good--i.e., a hit.

Anyway, that's the best underlying message I can come up with for those who feel that every play ought to have one. Others, though, will be glad to simply give themselves up to a bit of American screwball comedy that's brightly acted and directed.

For those of you worried about missing your favorite TV show...tape it.

Room Service, presented by Dallas Theater Center through November 13.