Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Photo/Jim Moore
In 2008, the troupe Parallel Exit was nominated for the Drama Desk's "Unique Theatrical Experience" award. Their latest show, Room 17B, suffers in comparison: not only is a great deal of their mostly silent shtick derivative, but the content aims for a comfortably light evening of what can only be described as "parlor theater." The four-man ensemble is in on it, with xylophonist extraordinaire Mike Dobson pulling off the best of the straight faces (a tightly up-drawn smile and a pair of wide, petrified eyes), but that only makes you wish the gang were doing more than inviting the audience onstage for a (rigged) game of musical chairs.

Room 17B is best when playing to the surreal expectations of Maruti Evans's file-cabinet filled set and to the introductory promise that "Anything at all could happen." Indeed, the actors attempt to cram inflated balloons and pour folders filled with sand into the drawers and in return pull out tubas, paper bags, and nooses, delighting in their surprising discoveries and unconventional uses for them. But they settle, far too often, for light antics: despite targeting a few audience members for a "Random experience," the four of them simply stare down the first person they come across, an act that looks to discomfort and/or amuse them more than anyone else. Laughing at their own intentionally clumsy attempts at magic (a trick with a curtain and a hat; a disconnected light bulb and chain switch) goes only so far; they end up exhausting all our good will within the first fifteen minutes (of what's only an hour-long show). At one point, they teach us that "Comedy = Pain + Time + Distance + Surprise"; in playing this formula merely for laughs, they miss the opportunity to actually apply it to what ends up being a lackluster cluster of skits.

In fairness, director Mark Lonergan and co-creators Dobson and Joel Jeske don't claim to be breaking new ground. Jeske's solo mime acts, right down to the meticulous application and triple-checking of the fit of his hat, will be instantly familiar to those who enjoy Bill Irwin's mild-mannered clowning. As for the two remaining cast members, Brent McBeth is an impish, rubbery little fellow, and he's well-matched by the tall and explosive Danny Gardner, whose slow-motion meltdown as an ice-cream-truck driver who can't stand the sound of his own jingle is a highlight of the evening. But just as their program is cluttered with irreverent facts, the show is a hodgepodge of talent that aims merely to amuse. How else to explain the inclusion of a knock-knock joke, told by Monkey and Tiger masked actors, speaking gibberish Chinese? Anything at all could happen, but the group plays it so safely, so tightly, that nothing very interesting ever does.

[Update: Okay, Dobson plays a marimba, not a xylophone. Who knew there was a difference?]

No comments: