Three Hotels by Jon Robin Baitz. Directed by Robert Falls.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Maura Tierney as Barbara; photo: T. Scott Erickson
"cutting away the dead wood."
"I came of age in hotels," says Kenneth Hoyle, a young middle-aged executive for a baby food company who is relating the story of his life with them and with his wife Barbara in Jon Robin Baitzís 1992 play "Three Hotels" which is gracing the main stage of the Williamstown Theatre Festival to open its season. As the senior executive empowered to fire people he has started his narrative monologue in Tangier, Morocco in a glorious hotel suite designed by Thomas Lynch. The setting actually threatens to overwhelm the man it contains, but Steven Weber is a very good actor and he holds the stage in his thrall, rather than the other way around.
This one act, three-part, play, taking just one hour and nineteen minutes, shows us Ken and his wife, Barbara, in three very different settings, jewels held fast in first the white gold magnificence of the middle east, then the molded plastic of St. Thomas, Virgin Islands and finally the grazed stucco and wood of Oaxaca, Mexico. Ken inhabits the first and last and Barbara the second but both live in all of them for their stories are so intertwined that they are inseparable.
I should be clear. I do not like monologue plays. I feel robbed, beaten over the head and left for dead by assailants unknown. I get to hear what happened but never to experience it. When attending a performance of a play involving more than one human being, I want to see the story play out. I want to meet the characters involved. I donít just want to hear about them from a character who has trouble being aloof from and independent of his own story. I donít want dispassionate reportage; I want drama.
Jon Robin Baitz is a curiously good writer. In the three monologues I learn a great deal about the Hoyles and the people around them and I donít seem to miss much. Perhaps this is due to the skill of an author who can write livid pictures and mercurial reactions into his lengthy solo speeches. Or, perhaps this is due to the performances of its two stars: Maura Tierney and Steven Weber.
Tierney gets the least stage time and she is easy to listen to and easy to watch. She is a much more expressive actress than one might believe from her TV appearances in ER and Rescue Me. She shows her utter and complete joy in demoralizing a group of women while taking down her sculpted husband, hoisting him upward in life as she knocks over his white marble plinth of position. She makes simplicity into a complex thing in this role. Her only slip as a wife becomes a tale of joyful woe. Her acceptance of the death of her only son is as heart-wrenching as it would be were we to witness the story rather than hear about it.
Steven Weber as Kenneth; photo: T. Scott Erickson
Kenneth Hoyle is brought to vivid life by Weber. He is hard to like and hard to dislike all at the same time, and yet that is what the script asks of the audience. Weber walks the line on this one. He literally dances into our affections while alienating us with his cold-blooded attitude toward destroying other menís careers. Weberís likeability began with the TV show Wings and has slowly but surely been altered into something more sinister and dangerous in his roles. Here he brings his early years into play while taking up that hidden more adult cudgel with which to smash apart everything in sight.
The sadness here is that these two never get to interact, to play together, to be seen and heard in conversation. We never get to witness the relationship, but only to hear about it from one point of view and then another. The director, Robert Falls, has done his best to infuse the missing Hoyle into the existing Hoyleís scene. The third part, in Mexico, is where he succeeds the best in this effort. We are constantly aware of the door and the cloth-barrier closet door and we keep expecting Barbara to emerge through one or the other. So sure is Ken that Barbara is with him that we can almost see him and then, suddenly, as the lights begin to dim we have her, and we hope that Kenneth has her also. This is wonderful directing; this is insightful and romantic and realistic and mythic.
Susan Hilferty adds another dimension of reality with perfect costumes while James F. Ingalls stretches us back into the world of theater. His lighting design is tender and constantly shifting. He does this so well that we donít notice a change until the change is almost complete.
Three Hotels is a strangely wonderful experience, too short because there arenít roles to be played by others, yet just right for the nature of its narrative. Originally created in 1990 for a TV movie with Richard Johnson, its 1992/93 productions won Ron Rifkin a 1994 Lucille Lortel Award.
Over my personal doubts about monologues being theater, I would recommend this experience as a good one, perhaps a better than good one. The actors are terrific and Baitz writes a good old-fashioned story, just not a script. The production has excellent values and the show is short enough to not feel youíve wasted your time on people jabbering endlessly. And you will be taken to three very different hotels in places you might not reach in any other way.
Three Hotels plays on the Main Stage at the Ď62 Center for Theatre and Dance at Williams College through July 24. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-597-3400.