The Flying Karamazov Brothers work their distinctively silly postmodern magic on a creaky 1937 Broadway farce in “Room Service,” best known as one of the lesser cinematic efforts of the brothers Marx. Taking the play’s original text, by John Murray and Allen Boretz, as a mere launching pad, the quartet of performers and director Robert Woodruff splice in a bushel of blissfully bad puns, contempo cracks and gymnastic business — and of course, the occasional bout of juggling — to create a dizzying soup that will delight the troupe’s many fans and serve as a fine introduction to newcomers.
The show’s clever conceit has the brothers K in a dilemma that mirrors the plot of the ’37 play, their new project. Holed up in a swanky art deco hotel room that could indeed pass for trendy chic of today or authentic pre-war glam (one Greco is credited with set and costumes), Dmitri (Paul Magid), Ivan (Howard Jay Patterson), Rakitin (Michael Preston) and Smerdyakov (Sam Williams) Karamazov are out of funds on the eve of their opening, just like the hapless shoestring producer Gordon Miller, protag of the original “Room Service.” While fending off visits from process servers for disgruntled creditors and fielding phone calls from one “Gordon” (i.e. Davidson, Mark Taper Forum artistic director), the troupe attempts to rehearse the show, reading from dog-eared little orange Samuel French texts.
The four performers play all 16 roles, which supplies much of the screwball humor, as Ivan and Rakitin spar over the ingenue part and confusion and conflict ensues whenever a fifth character is required onstage. Makeshift costumes are flung on and off and characters dash in and out with the same precision brought to the bursts of juggling, dancing and harmonizing that are tossed in more or less willy-nilly.
Topical wisecracks almost swamp any others in the play, with Marv Albert, Dr. Kevorkian, RuPaul and O.J. targeted, and plenty of ripe gags for the local crowd. At one point Rakitin puts in a desperate call for funds to a friend at the Magic Kingdom: “Disney already owns every other entertainment enterprise in America — why not buy us?”
Just past the halfway point, the Karamazovs flee the cops descending on their hotel room, re-entering in full character costume to serve up the original farce more or less straight for a stretch, at which point it becomes clear that the play itself is a vehicle grown somewhat rusty with age, in need of all the sprucing up it can get.
The show flags a little as the Karamazov antics take a back seat, although Preston, the best actor in the bunch by some distance (and, as a six-year vet, the relative newcomer to the 24-year-old troupe), is utterly delightful as he, er, juggles two big roles, the playwright Davis, a loping yokel from the sticks, and put-upon hotel manager Gribble. Before long the original text is happily abandoned again, as the show grabs an ending out of thin air, courtesy of a certain multibillionaire cast as deus ex machina.
Room for some improvement there is in this “Room Service.” Surely more fun could be had, for instance, from the food scene that was a giddy highlight of the Marx Brothers film, here more or less a sloppy setup for a dire pun that gets the evening’s biggest groan (“Get used to it,” Ivan snaps back). And the juggling might be more cleverly woven into the fabric of the farce. But for the most part the Karamazovs’ knockabout antics are as finely honed as ever. They ride their latest vehicle for just about all it’s worth.