The world premiere production of “The Room” at Open Fist Theater Company is overcrowded with famous figures, yet is unfortunately under-furnished in terms of drama. Writer-director Michael Franco, justly celebrated for his work with such recent landmarks of L.A. theater as “The Master and Margarita” and “Gorey Stories,” doesn’t lack for ambition, dealing with real-life events and introducing 24 characters over a decade. The play, however, seems to be overwhelmed by this challenge. Most of its characters feel undefined and interchangeable, it never develops a compelling dramatic throughline and ultimately flounders in a sea of historical exposition.
The story, apparently a true one, follows a group of rich men meeting to discuss the alarming events happening in the decade leading up to WWII, and how this led to the formation of the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA. These meetings take place in the apartments of Vincent Astor (Shawn MacAulay), and include such luminaries as President Teddy Roosevelt’s hard-drinking son Kermit (John Gegenhuber), Winthrop Aldrich (Colin Campbell), novelist Somerset Maugham (Bjorn Johnson), noted journalist Dorothy Thompson (Amanda Weier) and William Donovan (Michael McGill). Although the meetings start as casual dinners among friends, the information passed on by these privileged people gradually becomes a resource and finally an influence on the government’s reaction to the growing conflagration in Europe.
MacAulay underplays Astor to the point of blandness, but his conflict with Donovan toward the end of the play is appropriately passionate and angry. Gegenhuber steals the show as Kermit in a brashly funny perf, but he is also one of the few characters who effectively reminds the audience of the dramatic stakes at hand.
Weier and Johnson bring energy and wit to their portrayals, and McGill is brusquely effective as Donovan. Campbell is archly venomous as Aldrich, one of the few characters who doesn’t come off as a generically pleasant tycoon. Donna Giffen provides lovely singing interludes between scenes, with an especially effective low-key rendition of “Someone to Watch Over Me,” and Bill Jackson is quite good as the gruff servant Dalton. Adam Bitterman, Rebecca Rosenak, Mary Seidel and Weston Blakesley are all fine in smaller roles.
Franco’s direction is curiously static, and perhaps constrained by the fact that he is attempting to tell a piece of history. His set design is adequate if uninspired, comprised mainly of chairs and a big table.
Tim Labor’s sound design uses recordings from historical figures to move the story forward, but some of the voices are difficult to hear properly. Diane Crooke’s costumes, particularly her array of outfits for Giffen, are appropriately elegant and understated.