August 17, 2011

Why "HotelMotel" May Be Worth A Visit

While I may be an avid theatergoer, I’m not always the most adventurous.   
I prefer narrative-driven pieces to experimental ones. I tend to like my theater on a traditional stage and I can’t stand any kind of audience participation. Still, I was intrigued by the idea of HotelMotel, a double-bill of plays that The Amoralists Theatre Company is presenting through Aug. 29 in a back room of the Gershwin Hotel on East 27th Street.

According to a Wall Street Journal story, it was cheaper for the company to rent a room in the hotel than it would have been to rent a theater space (click here to read the article). The site-specific verisimilitude is part of HotelMotel's odd appeal; at times you can hear the people in the next room. Only 20 seats are available for each performance and the seating process is a show in itself. 

Ticket holders have to wait in the Gershwin’s lobby until their name is called. An usher dressed like a bellhop then escorts them one-by-one (or in couples if two people have come together) inside where a bowler-hatted pianist is playing in a room done up in bordello red and dominated by a king-sized bed. The usher sets up a folding chair around the bed for each audience member and reminds them to turn off their cell phones. Then he goes out to get the next guest.

I was the third person seated and so got to watch as the other 17 came in. No one spoke, except for the hip-looking older couple seated next to me who seemed amused by the whole thing and became progressively so as the evening unfolded. Another more bemused couple across from me kept looking around as though they couldn’t believe they were there.

The Amoralists' resident playwright Derek Ahonen wrote and directed the first play, Pink Knees on Pale Skin.  It’s about a sex therapist who’s treating two couples in troubled marriages. The treatment methods are unconventional. The bed is there for a reason. At one point the therapist’s husband, who is often called on to sleep with her patients, strips naked (there’s no question why the hunky and handsome actor Jordan Tisdale got the part) and hides under the bed. 

At another point, the therapist directs oral sex between one husband and wife (it’s performed under the bedcovers but there’s no question that you feel like a voyeur as you watch the scene and that you’d probably squirm even more if you weren’t aware that, given the intimate setting, your fellow theatergoers are also looking at you).

The themes of the piece (therapists can be even more screwed up than the people they treat, watching other people have sex can be uncomfortable) seem kind of obvious but the actors are fully committed to their roles. It can’t be easy to say and do all that sex stuff with a bunch of strangers sitting just a hand’s length  away and yet they pull it off.

When it was over, the bellhop ushered us guest out of the room to make way for “housecleaning.” Each play runs around 90 minutes, with the set change taking almost 30. The folding seats aren't that comfortable and it felt good to stretch my legs. Plus the playing space was only slightly warmer than the meat locker room at Fairway (take a jacket if you go) and so I was happy for the break. 

There’s a place in the lobby that makes a decent cappuccino and provides a chance to warm up.  While I was sitting there, I saw the actors from Pink Knees leaving for the night; somehow they looked very vulnerable.

Back inside, the seats had been rearranged and we were told we could sit wherever we chose. I ended up next to one of the actors waiting to make his entrance in the second play, Animals & Plants, a semi-mystical mystery by the prolific Adam Rapp (with 18 plays over the past decade, he’s become the theatrical equivalent of Joyce Carol Oates).

Rapp’s play, which was first produced 10 years ago, is set in a horror-movie motel room in North Carolina (taxidermied creatures on the wall, eerie sounds coming from the bathroom) where two guys are waiting to do a drug deal.

There’s less sex but even more full-frontal nudity in Animals & Plants. The men while away the time, discussing—and, as directed by Rapp himself, flauntingtheir private parts and engaging in inane philosophical conversations that rival John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson’s classic “Le Big Mac” exchange in the movie “Pulp Fiction.”  

Eventually, a woman with problems of her own arrives, the deal goes bad, much blood is shed. The play is alternately funny and horrifying. But, again, I found myself wondering what the point was, other than a Sam Shephard-style meditation on men and violence. And, of course, we've been there and done that with Shephard.

It doesn't help that the evening ends with a whimper.  The actors in Animals & Plants don’t even take a curtain call (although they all deserve approbation—particularly William Apps and Matthew Pilieci as the bagmen). Since the lights had never been turned down, they couldn’t come up to signal that the show was over either. Instead, the usher, now flashing some flesh of his own, just opened the door and the 18 of us—the hip couple left at intermissionquietly shuffled out. 

I was standing on the corner of Madison Avenue when I looked over and saw the bemused couple standing next to me.  “Wow, that was intense, wasn’t it?” the man said.  “Yeah,” I agreed.  “It was a real adventure.” And one worth checking out.

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