by Jon Robin Baitz
directed by Robert Falls
June 29 – July 24 , Williamstown Theatre Festival Mainstage
Scenic Design by Thomas Lynch
Lighting Design by James F. Ingalls
Costume Design by Susan Hilferty
Sound Design by Obadiah Eaves
Production Stage Manager, Eileen Ryan Kelly
Production Manager, Jeremiah Thies
Steven Weber – Kenneth Hoyle
Maura Tierney – Barbara Hoyle
Some years ago, when my sons were small and I used to frequent school fairs and street fairs, I always looked at the inflatable play structures with trepidation. As the children bounced about on them, it seemed to me inevitable that some exuberant or malicious one among them would puncture the balloon, and I imagined the whole—roof and pillars, dinosaur head, safety nets and everything—slowly and harmlessly caving in, until there was nothing left but a flaccid heap of plastic and rubber…and a horde of thoroughly delighted children worming their way out to the street, running away, and dancing tauntingly before their distraught nannies or parents. Minus the kids, this experience and the attendant fantasy came to mind during the boring moments of Jon Robin Baitz’s Three Hotels—of which there were many—and the evening gave me a more tangible idea of what such a deflation might actually be like: the show steadily kept on losing energy, until it finally collapsed.
The play started out promisingly with Steven Weber’s nicely honed characterization of a corporate hatchet man in the first section, but this already started to lose momentum before Maura Tierney’s somewhat unsure turn as his neurotic wife, Barbara, and ended with the protagonist’s confused agonizing over his downfall and his guilt about his relationship with his wife and their early ideals, signified by their reminiscences of the Peace Corps, where they met. Then there’s Ken Hoyle’s Jewish identity, which he abandoned to rise in the corporate world. (Barbara enjoys telling his business associates that his real name is not Hoyle, but Hershkowitz.) The production had some strengths in Steven Weber’s accomplished acting and above all in Tom Lynch’s handsome sets…and I am a huge fan of his for his magnificent design for the Seattle Ring, the last pretty one left, it seems. Robert Falls’ direction was restrained, respectful, and purposed. But there was nothing to hold any of this up, not even enough air. The play was far too weak to support Falls’ good taste, Weber’s talent, Tierney’s lack of focus, and Lynch’s handsome set, along with its purported agenda of inflaming us against multinational corporate wickedness. Whooooosh…
Not that the play doesn’t have something going for it either. Baitz has a touch for language: his characters’ monologues are always convincing as educated American colloquial diction, but just a bit more precise and a bit more colorful, and Falls and Weber showed a keen ear for that. That was about it for Baitz. The corporate skullduggery promised entertainment, but it grew too earnest too fast, and there wasn’t much that audiences haven’t already seen many times before on tv or or in multiplexes. The news itself, as read in traditional newspapers, is a lot more colorful, shocking, and entertaining. Baitz managed to keep us in suspense a little during the first episode, but before it is over, it is clear enough where the play is going, and it’s spent itself out. Actually I found Weber’s work in the first act amusing and trenchant, but he (and his director) exercised a restraint that the play couldn’t support. Weber hedged back, when he had an opportunity to caricature a villainous foreign accent or outrageously boorish behavior. Social plays have to entertain to make their point. Falls and Lynch surely remembered the classic climbers in the movies, like Kirk Douglas in The Bad and the Beautiful, and Weber even looked a bit like Douglas at significant moments, but he kept holding himself back. In a really good play restraint would he been admirable, but here a bit of bravado and caricatural foreign accents might have introduced a bit of energy and color that were otherwise lacking in the play.
Maura Tierney was trying to project the languor of a troubled middle-aged woman, who is recovering from the effort of giving a speech before an audience, as well as the stress following an enormous, destructive gaffe, which she is trying to rationalize and prettify in her own conscience. Her concept of the character had some relevance to what was written, but her delivery lacked the sort of variety, color, and force that might make it entertaining. In the first act Weber was able to pepper his role with enough auditory and emotional dynamics to bring his character across to a live audience. The main stage also has an acoustical defect—a slight slapback—that can make lines hard ot understand, unless actors really project and enunciate. British actors are trained to overcome that sort of thing easily, and it posed no problem for Mr. Weber, but Tierney’s delivery was so flat and the irregular pace of her lines so unsuited to live theater, that, although she was by no means incomprehensible, her characterization dissolved into the acoustics. Restraint did her portrayal and her character particular harm. Ken’s references to her in the first segment led me to expect a stronger personality, a wife who was even somewhat formidable, but when we meet her in the flesh, she’s actually something of a dishrag.
The idea, I suppose, is that what she had to endure as the pampered wife of a highly-paid executive abroad was so terrible that her public outburst in a situation where it was assured to do the least good. As a nervous breakdown, it’s a rather inglorious one. Barbara and Ken richly deserve one another, but Maura Tierney’s flaccid performance made her too much of a victim. Barbara cries out for a sharper, livelier performance.
My experience has been that whenever social issues and the arts meet, it usually does neither cause much good. Theater is a partial exception. Social messages carry well through direct speech, whether it is a reformer in the streets, a preacher on his pulpit, or an actor on the stage, and of course there is a tradition that reaches back at least to ancient Athens. Nonetheless, for such a message to survive beyond a few months, the issue has to point to universal issues, and the playwright needs to understand them in a broader context of human psychology and relations. In fact Mr. Baitz had a good part of those elements. We were, after all, witnessing the affairs of a large American enterprise involved in global business—no less a part of today’s society than it was in 1990, although some of the specifics may have evolved since then. Baitz shows us the effect of a human being’s environment on his character, in this case, the work he does and the mores of his workplace. He also shows us the effect of this on a basic social unit, a well-heeled, middle-class American family. And then there is the issue of race. None of these are trivial, and none of them have gone away over the past twenty years. There is even a tirade against the evils of corporate life—presented with admirable dramaturgical sophistication in two versions. In spite of all this, I left the theater in a state of vague irritation. My feelings about corporations, corporate wives, and American families were neither intensified nor deepened. The story is based on the playwright’s personal experience growing up in such and family, and perhaps, when he wrote it, he was too close to it. The performance, with its tastefulness leaning towards blandness, also stood in the way
In the second part, Barbara’s monologue, Baitz turns on full the faucet in his luxury literary hotel bathroom and we hear all the backstory. Baitz’s mistake is to make his play hinge on certain crucial facts: the improper marketing of baby formula in Africa (based on fact) and the death by stabbing of the Hoyle’s teenage son on a beach in Rio de Janeiro. You’ve got to be a little more subtle than that, a little vaguer, even though it’s only a MacGuffin. Even poor old Ibsen knew that. The point is that they can afford to buy their teenage son a Rolex (In fact, she doesn’t name the brand, but we know what she’s talking about) for his birthday, and he’s thoughtless enough to wear it to the beach. In this second “act” this unfortunate incident becomes the pivot of the Hoyles’ relationship and the ethical clockwork of the play. Mr. Hoyle becomes an ambitious bastard, and Mrs. Hoyle a self-pitying, moralistic pest, eventually the cause of her husband’s inevitable downfall. It is perverse that he apologizes to her after her moronically self-indulgent revelation, instead of feeding her to the sharks, as he might have, and our corporate creep ends up as rather a sap in his Mexican hotel room, many steps below the ones we’ve already seen: a suite in a deluxe chain hotel in Morocco and a resort hotel in the Caribbean, the venue of a retreat for executive wives in Ken’s corporation—all made pleasant to the eye, if obviously tacky in their own ways. (Lynch doesn’t miss the slightest detail.) In any case Ken’s third-act agonizings were unconvincing and basically uninteresting. Devoid of any moral purpose they amounted to nothing more than the old Jewish Guilt, hanging immobile in the air like a bad smell. Here in this hotel room Ken seemed trapped, still obsessed with the past—his ruined marriage and his lost job, and of his present environment, he seems to find it hard to go beyond the usual “Sophisticated Traveler” clichés in relating to Mexico and the Mexicans. I couldn’t help thinking that a reasonable person would be devoting more time and energy to future plans and how to extricate himself from his predicament. Unlike real life, this executive didn’t get a golden parachute, only a silver one.
All the sets were shallow, based on flat, Lynchean arrangements of rectangular shapes, and impeccable work they were. Presumably that was the reason for scheduling this piffling revival on the main stage, while the oustanding classic production, Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire was relegated to the subsidiary Nikos Theater, when (Did I mentioned this?) Three Hotels is constructed as three monologues, one from husband, one from wife, then back to the husband. There is no need for a large set, and the excellence of Lynch’s work only brings out the inadequacies of the play’s concept and execution. Actually the Nikos could have accommodated the production on its stage, but Streetcar‘s marvellous claustrophobic set would have looked out of place on the main stage, and the theater-in-the-round effect would not have worked either. As it was, WTF had to turn eager ticket-buyers away from Streetcar, and Three Hotels played to a large house that was quite empty above the orchestra.
Baitz found in this an aesthetically interesting and compelling way to present the alienation of the couple in its absolute starkness. Perhaps the big sets were meant to stress that, but in fact they amounted to little more than impressive and attractive ornament, although trenchant as an ironic cushion of luxury for the protagonists in their fall. All in all, the solo theater dramaturgy in itself seemed out of place on the main stage. However, in breaking down his action into discrete monodramas, Baitz deprived himself of the passing contrasts and conflicts traditional dramatists still rely on to enliven and explicate their plays—with success. Baitz’ decision was risky, and it requires strong acting and careful direction to bring it off. In spite of the considerable talents and experience of the participants, that didn’t happen in this production.