Send in the Clowns

Wacky and delightful, Room 17B now playing at 59E59 is the most recent conjuring of stage magic from acclaimed comedy troupe Parallel Exit (This Way That Way, Cut to the Chase). At just a hair over an hour, Room 17B provides laughs aplenty with a thoroughly modern blend of physical comedy, dance, mime, and slapstick. The controlled and precisely choreographed chaos creates much merriment. The audience, comprised of a mix of ages (including a number of children at the show I attended), thoroughly enjoyed the frivolity from start to finish.

The intimate, 50-seat Theater C at 59E59 is the perfect venue for the zany antics of this talented quartet of clowns. With an evocatively lit set fitted out by three-time Drama Desk nominated designer Maruti Evans with wall-to-ceiling filing cabinets, the space includes three doors — each marked “Room 17B” — which provide three times the opportunities for comic entrances and exits.

Without giving away the twenty or so scenes that make up the show, suffice it to say that Room 17B is a beguiling blend of music and mayhem in the vein of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton — influences directly cited by the members of Parallel Exit. With exaggerated movements and little to no dialogue, the fearsome foursome of funnymen act out various personae of office workers (boss, minion, kiss-up) in a variety of glee inducing gags. The office-like setting sets up a show in which power struggles between the players becomes the main conceit.

Some of the bits are more successful than others, but none of them fail to elicit at least a giggle or two. Many of the shticks produce heartfelt guffaws. The opening “dance” number, in particular, is energetic and hilarious as it introduces us to the agile performers: Mike Dobson, Joel Jeske, Danny Gardner, and Brent McBeth.

Like The Three Stooges plus one, each performer creates a distinct personality with little more than a raised eyebrow or a goofy frozen smile. The mock enmity between frenemies Gardner and McBeth generates some gut-busting moments. And the charismatic Jeske (Audience Choice Best Clown Act in 2009) practically steals the show with his wordless tomfoolery.

Special praise should also go out to Dobson’s excellent marimba work and alluring original compositions. His musical accompaniment is like a cross between Lionel Hampton and Danny Elfman, adding a wicked yet playful element to the onstage shenanigans.

Fluid direction by Parallel Exit Artistic Director Mark Lonergan keeps the action at a necessary lightening pace. There are a few moments that could, however, be tightened up, such as the semi-confusing “Blimp Demolition Derby” bit. And the “Peking Opera” joke falls a little flat from an intense build-up that produces little payoff. But the “Pigeon in the Park” and “Rival Ice Cream Truck Drivers” mimes are laugh-out-loud hysterical.

Cackles and chortles also come from improvised audience participation segments. Fearful ticket holders are forewarned that no one is safe from the mock humiliation that awaits. And all attendees should be sure to read the wonderfully designed program very carefully before the show since it provides many clues for the jokes to come.

Hands down, Room 17B is one of the most thoroughly entertaining hours I have spent at the theater in ages. This circus of cut ups, dressed in business suits, act absurd and desperately try to one-up each other. It is no wonder the troupe was nominated for a 2008 Drama Desk for Unique Theatrical Experience. Parallel Exit is simply unparalleled.

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