Theater Review: Hotel Nepenthe — Rooms with a Comically Existential View

Hard luck stories and ghostly characters flit in and out of the creepy yet elegant Hotel Nepenthe, an antique nest where guests are given leopard skin coats while they await their existential fates, sometimes lying in the bathtub.

“For its own interests, humor should take its outings in grave company; its cheerful dress gets heightened color from the proximity of sober hues” — Mark Twain

Actor/playwright John Kuntz hanging out at THE HOTEL NEPENTHE

The Hotel Nepenthe by John Kuntz. Directed by David R. Gammons. Staged by the Actors’ Shakespeare Project at the Storefront on Elm at Davis Square, Somerville, MA, through March 13.

By Bill Marx

Leave it to imaginative playwright and actor John Kuntz to come up with an amusing if uneven shotgun marriage of Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite and Stephen King’s The Shining. The repeated use of the theme song from TV’s The Odd Couple pays wry homage to Simon, who loved to anchor his barrage of one-liners in a tony hotel, usually with performers playing a number of different roles, while The Hotel Nepenthe’s mysterious tales of missing children, murder, and sudden accidental deaths are bows to the gruesome serendipity of King.

The evening’s hard luck stories and enigmatic characters flit in and out of the creepy yet elegant Hotel Nepenthe, an antique nest where guests are given complimentary leopard skin coats while they await their existential fates, sometimes while they are lying in the bathtub. Kuntz mixes his trademark brand of campy/silly humor (the hideous song “Afternoon Delight” is a giggly leitmotif) with plenty of tortured psyches and calculating evil, literally waving a magic wand at one point to bless the two extremes. The gesture is exquisitely ironic but also a sure sign of dramatic defeat—it points to the unbridgeable divide in the script between the hilarious and the horrifying, the childish and the mature.

In other words, I am not sure even the amply talented, award-winning Kuntz wields enough magic to fuse the dark and the light together, perhaps because he gets close to, but backs away from, making his characters more than wacky punch lines. He seems to be moving towards theatrical absurdity, especially given the way his actors (a superb cast that includes Kuntz) morph on stage into various caricatures, but he doesn’t go far enough to generate the emotional/intellectual shock of shattering rather than catering to easy fantasy.

In Greek Nepenthe means a medicine for sorrow, a pick-me-up, but Kuntz’s antic playfulness never drives deeply enough into misery and mortality. At one point some of his characters die when their car careens into a supermarket, which is followed by a (funny) Simonized one-liner about how the collision messed up the frozen food section.

This is not to say that audience doesn’t laugh plenty watching Kuntz juggle japes and mayhem.The interlocking stories, aside from the somewhat earnest exchanges between a brother and sister (staying at the Hotel Nepenthe because of their mother’s funeral), are always compelling, especially a serio-comic episode involving a desperately unhappy wife of a prominent politician who hires a prostitute to help her blackmail her drugged husband, lying comatose back at the hotel. Here Kuntz misses a chance for Chaplinesque, physical comedy involving a numbed body pressed into sexual service. But the cynical piece is still highly entertaining, as is the monologue of a celebrity who walks a red carpet that wanders through time and space, the presence of a strange bell hop who brings a hat box to a car rental agency, and some strange goings-on about a missing child.

Considerably helping the proceedings is David Gammons’s fluid staging, not the now required (and cliched) use of video cameras and TV screens to skew perspective in all-too predicable ways but the creation of a stage space that fuses actor dressing rooms and hotel quarters, as well as the use of sound effects (kudos to Billy Barclay) and props (bathtub, sofa) to focus the dramatic action while performers change costumes for the next scene. The concept generates a dreamlike, anything can happen sense of possibility that serves Kuntz’s play brilliantly, even in some ways suggesting the script’s limitations. It would be interesting to see the sketches bleed into each other more than they do, to yoke comedy and tragedy cheek-by-jowl rather than tongue-in-cheek.

The Actors’ Shakespeare Project (ASP) cast members, who include Kuntz, are generally well up to the task of individualizing the variety of characters they play, with Marianna Bassham switching effortlessly from a loquacious and lonely “Rent-A-Car Gal” to the delightfully sardonic “Senator’s Wife” on a black-hearted mission. Daniel Berger-Jones provides an engagingly laconic “Bell Hop,” Georgia Lyman turns “The Starlet” into a wonderfully air-headed visionary, and Kuntz provides his usual deft combination of the innocently daffy and the psychologically disjointed. The second installment in ASP ‘s “The Winter Festival,” The Hotel Nepenthe is a fun place to stay, though less memorable than it could have been.

Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.

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