By Jon Robin Baitz.
Directed by Luda Lopatina Solomon.
Produced by Bluebird Arts.
Playing at Athenaeum Theatre, Chicago.
“It will be people like us that will change the world.”
An Emotionally Challenging Play Finds an OK Production.
Celebrating its third season, Bluebird Arts begins its six-week run this weekend of Jon Robin Baitz’s 1993 off-Broadway hit Three Hotels. With its focus on stories exploring the human condition through the “genuine problems of real people,” Bluebird Arts certainly fulfills its mission with Baitz’s study of a well-meaning, modern American family of liberal idealists turned cynical by the compromising ambiguities of the high-power, executive world. Unfortunately, despite what seems to be a strong script, the two performances, though engaging and energetic, left me emotionally ambivalent toward the production and wanting for more grounded, emotional truth.
Three Hotels, as its name might suggest, is written as three monologues occurring in three different hotel rooms, each in its own exotic location. Owing less (I like to think) to some high-level, hotel conspiracy than to the clever design by Rick Frederick, each hotel room is adorned exactly the same: translucent, plastic walls framing a living quarters complete with glass tables and clear, plastic chairs: an environment that is as ironically sterile in its soulless, modern taste as the characters who inhabit it.
In a room in Tangier, Morocco, we first meet Kenneth Hoyle (Dave Belden), a double-breasted suit, who, with some hint of deep-seated anxiety, immediately attacks the liquor tray to make himself a martini. Martini poised confidently in hand, Mr. Hoyle then commences to tell us (us, his audience, I presume) about who he is—which, essentially, is what he does: VP of Marketing and Third-World Affairs for an international business that peddles (by dubious means) a baby formula (of dubious quality), Mr. Kenneth Hoyle lives to increase profits and excise human waste (i.e. his fellow employees). While he awaits with dedicated relish the arrival of his latest fire, he regales us with anecdotes of his corporate life, making occasional reference to his wife, whose faithful presence in his life, despite her nominal complicity in his career, seems to embody for him some moral charge he is yet ashamed to acknowledge to himself. The effect of Mr. Hoyle (a Mr. Hirschkowitz by birth) is a hollow suit deeply at odds with himself, who at some point made the Mephistophelean pact but can no longer recall the human name he used to sign it.
A few weeks later, we meet Barbara Hoyle (Jaimelyn Gray) in a room in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. Not long before her arrival, she—more under the compulsion of corporate wifeliness than at request—had just delivered a speech to a new batch of “young wives of men assigned to the third-world,” women who were like she used to be: naïve. Barbara walks us through her experience, detailing her inner struggle between giving the corporate pitch she’s expected to and the difficult truth she feels compelled to warn the women of. Finding herself unable to lie to the vacant smiles of the aspiring third-world upper-class, Barbara divulges the darkest and most devastating experience of her life abroad and enjoins the women to be careful of losing that which she’s discovered is infinitely more precious than wealth: family. She then concludes her speech with an outright condemnation of the men in power who knowingly used her husband’s ossified heart to harvest profits in Africa. This act of truth, as we see in the final scene with Kenneth, will destroy the Hoyle’s corporate future, but it might just save their family’s.
Three Hotels, similar to Baitz’s Other Desert Cities that was recently produced in 2013 at The Goodman, is a very “adult” play; that is, one that I would say is more intellectually sophisticated in its approach to mature themes (e.g. ethics, family) than the typical, theatre fare in Chicago (at least that I’ve seen). This is definitely one of the script’s strongest virtues, and Solomon’s simple staging gives Belden and Gray lots of room to explore its complicated, emotional levels. Moreover, though the play is comprised of only monologues, they are well-written and well-acted enough that they held my attention throughout (especially once Barbara divulges their family’s secret); and the themes, although “adult,” are certainly approachable to anyone mature enough to appreciate them: significantly, most of the audience present during the night I attended were in their twenties and thirties.
That being said, I found the actors’ emotional preparation to be somewhat lacking. In Three Hotels, where there are no interpersonal interactions, the onus of hitting those moments of victory and devastation, anger and despair, fall entirely on the individual actors, who must imaginatively establish their characters’ histories so that every present moment appears to flow from an unspoken past. And I just didn’t feel it. What I felt most was the tension in myself of willing the actors to hit those moments, and by the end I was weary of their effort.
Belden’s cynicism felt too casual, absent of true self-loathing, and his anger (his dominant emotion) never came from his abdomen, always his chest or head, where it felt forced and slightly staged. He does his best in his last scene, where his pace is slowed and there’s fewer layers for him manage. Gray gives a more consistent performance, perhaps because when we see her character she’s already reached “the bottom” of where Belden goes in his last scene. Still, like Belden, her emotional truth comes across a bit forced, such as when, her voice choked, she reminisces on what’s happened to her family. But my experience might just be due to it having been opening night, so it’s possible they’ll find those moments as the run progresses.
Leaving the theatre after the show, feeling weary from want of catharsis, my lasting impression was that this production, neither good nor bad, was just OK. Unlike others, which I’ve either detested for its pandering simplicity or cherished for its emotional beauty, Bluebird Arts’ Three Hotels inspires only a detached respect for the actors’ efforts and the artistic director’s choice of play. In other words, unfortunately, it is unmemorable.
Reviewed on 11 August 2016.
Playing at the Athenaeum Theatre, Studio Two, 2936 N. Southport Ave., Chicago. Tickets are $25 for adults and $14 for students and seniors. For tickets and information, call the Athenaeum Theatre box office at 773-935-6875. Performances are Thursdays – Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. through September 17th. Running time is 1 hour and 20 minutes with no intermission.