Produced by Goodman Theatre, Chicago
It Isn’t Funny.
The Upstairs Concierge would have delighted a nine-year-old Joe Orton. This world-premiere is the product of Teatro Vista writer Kristoffer Diaz and director KJ Sanchez’s fruitless, more than two-years-long development process at the Goodman Theatre. Though the play lacks any logic, wit, or social commentary, it is full of people running around in their underwear shouting nonsense. But the lack of stakes for anything they do proves that manic energy in a show is not enough to stave off boredom.
For about the first half of the evening, Diaz maintains a pretense of telling a story. Ella Elizondo (Tawny Newsome) is the concierge at a new hotel that caters to celebrities. Fresh from her MFA program in concierge-studies, Ella is bubbly, ignorant, and delighted to be working in a hotel that bills itself as one big family, since she is so desperate for a home. In keeping with the theme of closeness between staff and residents, her bed is in the lobby, and none of the rooms have locks. However, the hotel’s trademark openness is immediately undermined when Mr. Hotelman (Cedric Young) informs Ella that one of the guest’s identity must be kept a secret, because knowledge of her very presence in this city could upset an important contract negotiation.
In turns out the guests are three of the lamest celebrities imaginable. The first to arrive is BB (José Antonio García), a douchey blogger who gossips about real “brities” and whose tweets about the hotel could have a grave impact on its future. Then there is Shivery Delicious (Sandra Delgado), an author of two novels about robot uprisings who speaks in a French/Greek(?) accent, or whatever suits her fancy, and whom one of the bellhops is obsessed with. The secret guest is Rebecca Oaxaca (Alejandra Escalante), who became famous after a video of her bunting in a neighborhood baseball game went viral, and is now being courted by MLB teams. Mr. Hotelman hopes negotiating her recruitment will bring him fame for breaking the glass ceiling. But Rebecca is mainly interested in the hotel because its lack of locks make it the perfect location for drug-fueled orgies, which also intrigues BB, Shivery, and the rest of the staff. When rival baseball recruiters show up, including Donald Trump-like Yankees owner Mark Merriman (Theo Allyn) and a nameless Houston Astros owner who lives under a stolen Divvy bike (Tavis Turner), Ella’s responsibility is to manage everybody’s lies and keep the sordidness at her comfort level. She fails, and Shivery Delicious winds up wrapping herself in a comforter and running around in fear of the bubonic plague while everyone else is having sex and punching each other.
So, what exactly went wrong here? I’ll begin with something that seems small but has a major role in the farce genre. We learn late in the play that each room has a secret elevator. One of the biggest sources of comedy in a farce is the dramatic irony in how confrontations are set up by characters straying across each other. Think of the scene in Lend Me a Tenor in which a famous opera singer’s wife opens a closet we know one of his fangirls is hiding in. By basically giving his characters the ability to teleport, Diaz allows them to avoid or interact with each other randomly, making location irrelevant in a story that centers upon the geography of the set.
Late in the play we also learn we have been misled about pretty much everything we thought we knew about most of the characters. While this could excuse their lack of motivation or expected reactions to various stimuli in every moment in the play up to that point in terms of characterization, it does not retroactively make their nonsensical behavior funny. And while it’s not like we cared about any of these characters, it is a betrayal of anyone who trusted the author enough to pay attention to the many, many plot twists. Though perhaps the most honest and sensible person in the story, Ella is not a particularly likable protagonist. She has some unexplained need for a family, but since it’s ridiculous to believe a luxury hotel would ever be that and she quickly finds out it isn’t, I wonder why she’s so attached to a job she’s had for less than a week. Everybody else is just annoying and stupid, and while I know some of these actors can do good jobs, they just have nothing here to work with here and are reduced to screaming for no reason.
The play is a pallid imitation of What the Butler Saw, and oddly enough, not even as raunchy. Either the creative team couldn’t replicate what makes farces successful, or totally misjudged the differences between the Goodman and Second City, where Newsome has done most of her stage work. While it is possible a few people will find this play funny, most will not, and no intermission means you’re stuck. The Goodman always has great production values, and does a wonderful job of mounting older shows. But The Upstairs Concierge is the latest evidence that something is amiss in their development process.
Reviewed April 6, 2015
For more information, see The Upstairs Concierge’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing in the Owen at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N Dearborn, Chicago. Tickets are $10-40, to order call 312-443-3800 or visit www.GoodmanTheatre.org. Showtimes are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 2:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm except April 12 and 26, with additional performances on April 21 at 7:30 pm and April 23 at 2:00 pm. Plays through April 26. Running time is seventy-five minutes with no intermission.