BWW Reviews: L'HOTEL Bends Time, Minds at the Pittsburgh Public Theater
Steve Martin's famous pun described an acquaintance as having "a certain je ne sais I don't know what." That same malapropism could be applied well to the winning but sometimes uneven new comedy by Ed Dixon, L'Hotel, currently playing at the Pittsburgh Public Theater. The tone of the piece, like the characters and their world, sometimes seems cobbled together from inorganic wholes, assembled together into something that may not be beautiful, but is certainly striking.
In the world of L'Hotel, the inhabitants of the legendary Pere Lachaise cemetery in France, famous and otherwise, pass their afterlife in a beautiful but somewhat overcrowded hotel, where every day is exactly the same. Foppish Oscar Wilde (Brent Harris) butts heads with self-righteous Victor Hugo (Sam Tsoutsouvas), as choreographic great Isadora Duncan (Kati Brazda) attempts to out-ham stage star Sarah Bernhardt (Deanne Lorette). Adding to the chaos are musicians Jim Morrison (Daniel Hartley) and Gioacomo Rossini (the very funny Tony Triano). Their monotonous and repetitive existence is disrupted by a mysterious rumor that dead souls can, with the proper preparation, escape to the land of the living, leading to a farcical struggle to get that one-way ticket.
This comedic element of the play works very well, thanks to Ed Dixon's witty dialogue and knack for differentiating the voices of the characters. However, when our de factor leading man, Mr. Harris's Oscar Wilde, is given extended Tony-Kushnerian monologues to his departed love Bosey, the play flags a bit. Harris is a stunning seriocomic actor, and he plays the role of Wilde well enough that one would love to see him in a one-man show, but the monologues, and Wilde's tragicomedy, sometimes seem at odds with the zaniness of the drama as a whole. Similarly, characters like Rossini or the pratfalling Waiter (played with rubbery charm by Evan Zes) can seem like one-joke figures, but their jokes always land, and Mr. Zes gets to show further comedic and dramatic depths to his character in Act 2.
Perhaps the play's one structural misstep is in the placement- and judgment- of the character of Jim Morrison. As played by the young and fresh-faced Daniel Hartley, Morrison has charm, but his energy is too youthful, scrubbed and idealistic, lacking the gritty sense of chaos and depravity that Morrison cultivated- the Lizard King is no Claude Bukowski from "Hair," after all. Hartley performs well, but he never feels like the rock icon. Perhaps this is because, unlike the older figures in the play, Jim Morrison was a product of the mass media generation, and his image and vocal tones remain iconic in a way Hugo, Wilde and Bernhardt cannot by their place in time. Or perhaps it is because Harris biols down Morrison's legacy to that of a bad singer, bad poet and simple surrogate for the physical act of sex- a description any classic rock fan or avant-garde poetry aficionado would vehemently dispute. Whatever it is, the character sometimes seems perfunctory.
The show's scenic design by James Noone, and the sound and lights by Zach Moore and Kirk Bookman respectively do a fantastic job at creating the world of the Pere Lachaise Cemetery Hotel, and they have a trick or two up their sleeve for special moments within the play. The story is captivating and the characters are interesting, though they sometimes fail to gel into one cohesive whole. This genre-bending mix of fiction, history, comedy, tragedy and surrealism might feel more at home on the silver screen, in the hands of an eccentric auteur like Wes Anderson or Woody Allen. Something about the rapid-fire changing of emotional states and styles suits the ability of a camera to change location and perspective, rather than the stage which merely presents before an audience. (One also must wonder whether a comedy with characters such as Victor Hugo and Isadora Duncan, who I studied in my dual majors of English and Theatre Arts, will land with a wider public who did not study these figures.) Nonetheless, if you're in the mood for a smart comedy or a slapstick tragedy- or just something different to escape the leftovers for a while- come on down and visit your good friends in the cemetery- or in the hotel.