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LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Revivals of plays with illustrious by-lines have had a good track record on and off Broadway. Not so the works of Philip Barry. Even a much publicized and well-financed Broadway musical remake of his super hit, The Philadelphia Story, renamed High Society failed to fly. Now, the Blue Light Theater Co. has dug into the theatrical archives and retrieved Hotel Universe, one of several plays in which Barry abandoned the comedy of manners genre to indulge his penchant for philosophical parables.
It has its assemblage of beautiful Americans from the upper strata of the economy and drawing room talk with the requisite one-liners, but the mood is -- well, moody, or, to be even more accurate, suicidal. There are love affairs, but the real love affair for most of these people is with death in the face of lives which seem to have lost meaning in the post World War I years.
Director Darko Tresnjak whose work at the Williamstown Theatre Festival I've greatly admired, especially last season's stunning revival of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead has mounted a handsome production -- with a bright Mediterranean terrace by David P. Gordon and its cast charmingly coifed and dressed by Richard Stein and Linda Cho. The actors seem to have stepped right out of a picture of the "lost generation" mythologized in the novels of Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, but what they have to say and the slow-motion direction of Mr. Tresnjak aren't going to put Barry back on the theatrical map.
In fairness to Mr. Tresnjak, he's given himself a tough play to work with, overhung as it is with Oedipus complexes and religion. When it premiered in 1930 at the Theatre Guild, Ruth Gordon was highly praised for her handling of a difficult role, but reception of the play itself was another story. The then New York Times critic, Brooks Atkinson, felt that it exemplified Philip Barry's futile yearning for the prophet's role instead of doing what he did best, which was to write for glamorous actress symbolizing the emptiness of the affluent life and making witty remarks about it. Barry's mind, according to Atkinson, "was not sharp, lucid, and angry enough, and his invention not spontaneous enough for moral allegories." Atkinson may have been particularly harsh, but he was hardly alone. The intermission added in the London version was felt to interrupt the dramatic tension. The trouble, at least in this production, is that there's not much tension to interrupt.
One distinguished New York Critic, Arthur Hobson Quinn of the New York Herald-Tribune (one of a number of large circulation dailies then part of the journalistic landscape) did find Hotel Universe to be an uplifting and enlightening experience which may have encouraged the various productions in the years following the opening -- with an interval of thirty years to brace ourselves for the current revival.
The plot consists of scene after ponderous scene of dredged up recollections of crucial episodes in the unhappy lives of the assembled guests at a house in the South of France modeled on the villa of real-life lost generation hosts, Sara and Gerald Murphy. All are American expatriates, including hostess Ann Field (the exquisitely beautiful Arija Bareikis), who has been putting her own life on hold for three years to be with her ailing father Stephen (Richard Easton). The memories, some in the form of role playing, are prompted by the suicide of a young boy and the climax brings the inevitable "redemption" of one of the suicidally inclined member of this house party.
The people who are part of this Freudian evening include: Pat Farley (Adam Stein) who returned Ann's love until he become involved with an English girl who committed suicide (suicide is everywhere in this play). . . Norman Rose (Armand Schultz), a Jewish business tycoon who is in love with Alice Kendall (Cheryl Lynn Bowers whose sleepwalking scene marks the beginning of the play's less realistic phase two) . . .Tom and Hope Ames (Liam Craig and Keira Naughton) he, tortured with a sense of sin about having turned away from a planned priesthood; she, yearning for her real children instead of having to nurture Tom. . .Lily Malone(Kali Rocha who to deliver the sharpest lines) an alcoholic actress whose low self esteem stems from her relationship with her father, a ham actor and alcoholic. She too has played with suicide, and has the scars on her wrist to prove it.
That leaves Ann, the hostess, as the only one who remains committed to life. Richard Easton, who was wonderful both as Jacques Casanova in the Camino Real (at Williamstown) and as the righteous Lord Cantilupe in the splendid recent revival of Waste, here has the thankless task of playing not only Ann's father but all the other father figures in the real first act sequences and the allegorical second act. Superb actor that he is, he manages to invest these scenes, especially as Kali Rocha's hamm-y dad, with such power that you're almost persuaded that you're watching a play as worthy or revival as Camino Real and Waste.
This being a play about rich people, there's also a butler (Gregor Paslawsky) who is stuck with a useless bit of repeat business of reminding Pat about the time (running out, naturally) every half an hour. By the time Pat makes his choice between life and going "off to Africa" (the last words of the boy who actually did what everyone here talks about), I'm afraid I stopped caring one way or the other. The overheard exit remarks indicated that I was not alone.
LINKS TO PLAYS MENTIONED
In the Garden
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Camino Real/Williams, Tennessee