nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 15, 2011
There is no curtain (no proscenium, for that matter) in Theatre C at 59E59; and so while we wait for Room 17B to commence, we can amuse ourselves by looking carefully at the set (which is designed by Maruti Evans). It depicts an office, but a very off-kilter one. All three walls are covered in file cabinet drawers, stacked 12 high (if I counted accurately). Each wall also contains a door, and each door is labeled "17B." The only furniture, if you can call it that, is a xylophone with a small table alongside it; there's also a gong hanging nearby. Not a very conventional office, this.
Then the show starts. A man enters, opens one of the drawers, and pours what looks like salt or sand into it...from a file folder.
Additional odd things occur, and then suddenly what feels like a sitcom credits montage spins out, with each of our four actors being introduced to us via printed cards containing their names (which are: Brent, Danny, Joel, and Mike).
And then, just when we've gotten used to the fact that, like so many previous Parallel Exit productions, Room 17B is to be a wordless show, Mike starts talking to us. Reading from a few index cards, he imparts to us some of the rules that will be in effect for the next hour.
What follows is a vaudeville of shtick, skits, and silliness. Men march in a silly toy-like procession across the room. Mike plays the xylophone and, in one segment, Joel plays the tuba. The gong is used. Lights go on and off. Joel and Mike perform a sketch about a man going to work for what may be the last time, the former's mime perfectly synched to the latter's live soundtrack, recalling the blissful collaboration of David Shiner and the Red Clay Ramblers in Fool Moon. Fights ensue. Drawers open. Drawers close and other drawers open, as if by magic (or a weird variation on gravity). Hats and props are pulled improbably from drawers and other places. Brent is shoved into a cabinet.
And some members of the audience are brought into the act, too, most charmingly for a game of musical chairs that closes the show. No actual audience members are hurt during the program.
Room 17B is giddy, funny, fizzy physical comedy. Not everything in it lands: a piece in which actors pretend to be part of the Peking Opera falls kind of flat, for example. And though this show is steeped in slapstick, which always mines the scary place where tragedy and comedy overlap, Room 17B has a darker bent than Parallel Exit has heretofore exhibited, which definitely surprised me.
The craft is unassailable. Evans's set and lighting design is ingenious; Brent McBeth and Danny Gardner's dances are graceful and delightful; Mike Dobson's music is charming; and Joel Jeske (who co-wrote the piece with Dobson and takes center stage as chief clown) is as brilliant as ever. One moment, where he exits in one persona and returns in an opposite one—without having changed a single physical aspect of his character but indeed having entirely overhauled his psychic aspect—reminds us that in addition to being an accomplished physical comedian, Jeske is a superb actor as well.
Room 17B is directed by Parallel Exit's artistic director, Mark Lonergan. It's definitely a step in a new direction following the wordless family tap dance show Time Step and the dizzy pantomime Cut to the Chase.