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Farce is only as funny as it is a.) ridiculous and b.) still believable. That’s why Olney Theatre’s Noises Off revival works: The increasingly giddy goings-on hang together just on the right side of the border between the inspirationally outrageous and the generically absurd. It’s a thin line, and one that Arena Stage’s Room Service, alas, doesn’t seem to recognize.

Both productions boast the snappy timing and the slapsticking, door-slamming directorial panache that any farce worth its sight gags must have. So what’s Olney got that Arena lacks? In this case, at least, a cast that can act.

It helps that Noises Off has enough plot to keep things interesting: A second-rate sitcom star (Brigid Cleary) headlines a third-rate British touring troupe populated by stammering pretty boys, doddering sots, dithering bimbos, and tyrannical egomaniacs—in other words, your average theatrical ensemble. The leading man (Sean Pratt) is having an affair with the TV actress, the director (John Neville-Andrews) is carrying on simultaneously with the dim-bulb ingénue (Holly Rudkin) and the emotionally fragile assistant stage manager (Melissa Flaim), the jaded stage veteran (Pamela Lewis) stays busy trying to keep the ancient Shakespearean (Irwin Charone) from drinking himself blind, and the dull-witted second lead (James Slaughter) is desperately seeking character motivation where none could reasonably exist. They’re all trying desperately to pull together a tired old drawing-room farce called Nothing On, but at the dress rehearsal (and at two subsequent performances, one of which we watch from backstage) a few minor matters—like missed cues, lost contact lenses, jealous fits, star tantrums, petty sabotage, and unfortunate ad-libs—somehow get between the audience and the author’s intentions.

The result is broad, cartoonish comedy—doors stick, sardines are thrown, someone actually sits on a cactus—and howlingly funny when it’s done right. It looks anarchic, but it’s really as structured as a minuet; the staging must be meticulously choreographed down to the last double-take, and Olney director John Going makes sure his production clicks like clockwork, all the little gears and levers of missed connections and misread motivations meshing just so.

But there’s more to it than directorial attention to detail. His accomplished cast has the chops to handle all the business without appearing to be handling it, which is crucial; nothing’s more tiring than watching actors work. This ensemble simultaneously has the confidence to make Noises Off look easy and the craft to show us the clenched-teeth desperation of trying to keep the Nothing On show going on.

Regrettably, the Flying Karamazov Brothers aren’t much as actors—they’re better known for their jokes and their juggling—but then, Room Service isn’t much of a play. Maybe the 1937 John Murray-Allan Boretz farce hasn’t aged well; maybe it never made much sense.

Or maybe the deconstructionist approach the Brothers take—they add another layer of plot, playing themselves trying to fend off creditors and process servers long enough for the four of them to rehearse and stage the 11-character Room Service, which is itself about a near-bankrupt producer trying to fend off creditors long enough to rehearse and stage a 19-character play—is too labored for the material; even the Marx Brothers, after all, couldn’t entirely make the gimmick work in their 1938 film.

Whatever the case, Arena Stage’s new production is a farce trying strenuously to be funny, which is almost always fatal. The Brothers (Paul Magid, Howard Jay Patterson, Michael Preston, and Sam Williams) have their individual charms—Williams’s beatific-idiot routine is a snort, and Preston does a mean Dr. Strangelove—but there’s not much spark to their joint efforts, even when the Room Service action stops short to let them riff. Perfunctory interludes of juggling and ball-bouncing can’t liven up the proceedings, and their attempts at current-events comedy mostly fall flat: “I gotta hide my Heisman,” one cries when they learn of the looming lawsuit; “My Social Security card is still good, but the system is bankrupt,” one observes when the hotel calls looking for a valid credit card. (Stop me before I die laughing.) I will say that the business about the catfight that turns into the business about the hairball has a kind of sick physical-comedy inspiration to it.

Robert Woodruff stages the drama-within-a-comedy-within-a-postmodern-farce with carefully hierarchical quick-change directorial wizardry: The Karamazovs use different doors depending on whether they’re being themselves, the Room Service characters, or the characters in the play the Room Service guys are trying to stage; the downstage phone, meanwhile, only sounds its bell when it’s ringing for the Karamazovs. (It rings only in their imaginations, and they don’t actually pick up the handset when a call comes in as part of the Room Service action.)

The chief problem, I think, is the energy level; it’s curiously low, as though the Karamazovs are all operating on cruise control. They seem to be relying on the material and the staging, as though either could work without committed performances. Even at 90 minutes, this lackluster Room Service takes too long—and never really delivers the goods.CP