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Redemption Song

by Ralph Hammann on July 6, 2011

Three Hotels

In her first season as the WTF’s artistic director, Jenny Gersten is defining herself as a risk taker who is willing to mount plays of conscience and depth. Three Hotels hardly promises the commercial success of You Can’t Take It With You, which it replaces as the official season-opener, but it is a play that speaks powerfully and one that is deserving of the rich production values being lavished on it at the WTF.

Had You Can’t Take It With You materialized, audiences would have had the opportunity to contemplate our country’s current economic woes and ersatz values through the prism of Kaufmann and Hart’s genially comic vision of the Depression years. There is, however, nothing so comforting about Three Hotels, which takes decidedly deadly aim at the corporate monsters that mock humanistic values in the name of the monetary greed that has defined and defiled the American dream. As he did in Substance of Fire, Baitz again asks the ever pertinent question of what one is responsible for in this world.

Set in three hotel rooms and told in three monologues by two people—Kenneth and Barbara Hoyle, a corporate hatchet man and his wife—Baitz’s play is an exploration into the dark machinations of multinational corporations that blithely disregard the value of human lives, especially those in Third World countries not privileged to dream, let alone enjoy clean drinking water. Yet, despite the bleakness of his subject, Baitz doesn’t merely excoriate; there is a sort of hope at the end of his downward journey. He does, it seems, believe that souls can be redeemed.

When we first meet Kenneth, he is in a swank, yet arid, hotel room in Morocco, where he is about to coldly fire his company’s employees. As Kenneth, Steven Weber moves through the expensive surroundings with an air of entitlement and self-satisfaction that would be repugnant were it not for the fact that Weber charms us with his deft playing of caustic humor and directness of manner. We even have a certain admiration for a man who knows what a scorpion he is. But just when we are ready to write him off for defending the concerns of a corporation that markets defective baby formula to women in Africa, Baitz and Weber gradually reveal the unrest in Kenneth. It is admirably timed and played and a credit to both writer and actor that the revelation of a conscience seems both plausible and inevitable.

Maura Tierney is every bit as good as Barbara, who undergoes more of an explosion of conscience. Barbara travels with Kenneth to support him and, on one fateful day, which she recounts with serene sarcasm and mounting tension, she is asked to offer counsel to the wives of other corporate men who do their company’s dirty business in sterile hotel rooms, detached from the very places they occupy in “emerging nations.” From her very first words we sense, in Tierney’s delicate playing, a woman who has been injured in ways that include, but go well beyond, watching her husband turn into something unrecognizable. Tierney is particularly adept at balancing humor with horror and, like Weber, she manifests innate and brittle intelligence that is warring with an sensitivity that is highly developed and deeply vulnerable.

There may be but two actors on stage, but Weber and Tierney provide enough emotion and character development to fill the barren hotelscapes they briefly, but vividly, inhabit. Watching the fractures develop in each’s attempted artifice of casualness and confidence is the stuff of compelling drama in Robert Falls’ beautifully directed production.

Taking a dramatic cue from Baitz’s line, “In a hotel nothing sticks,” set designer Thomas Lynch has done a spectacular job in creating environments that, although they change their shapes, remain essentially the same Teflon world for the corporate traveler. Even the elegant set changes underscore the omnipresent sense of transition that allows such people to do their evil without repercussion. There is no sense of home, just a floating world that is clean, serene and soulless. This is a world of entitlement and privilege, and Lynch’s sets are vital to the production in suggesting how insulation contributes to malfeasance and even racism.

It all ends in a hotel room in Mexico on the Day of the Dead and, abetted by James F. Ingall’s stunning light design, Lynch provides a final image that is visual poetry. Less is often more, but in Falls’ one misstep, he cuts the image too short—another few seconds would work a magic commensurate with that which Weber and Tierney imbue Baitz’s racked souls.

This is an auspicious beginning for Gersten, whose arrival signals excellent news for the WTF, which had fallen into troubled times. If anyone can effect repairs, return a sense of the festive, and overcome the architectural problems inherent in the ’62 Center, it is she.