Heartbreak Hotels

In Jon Robin Baitz's drama Three Hotels, the wife of a corporate executive delivers a speech to wives who are about to move to the Third World for the first time. Barbara Hoyle, whose husband's company markets baby formula to mothers in developing nations, titles her talk "Be Careful." She counsels her audience about practical matters: Learn the language; save money for when you return stateside. And she also exhorts the women to guard against loss, as loss is something Barbara knows intimately.

Barbara, played with a shattering mix of grace and grief by Kimberly Daniel in a searing production at New Theatre in Coral Gables, has watched her husband Ken lose his ideals during twenty-plus years of marriage, as he transforms himself from Peace Corps volunteer to business cynic. She has witnessed Ken (unflinchingly portrayed by David Kwiat) compromise his integrity as he pushes formula on nursing mothers through unethical marketing schemes. She has felt the loss of her own integrity as she stands by without protesting, playing the good wife. She loses her son to a random act of violence on a beach in Brazil, one of the countries to which she has followed her husband on his rise up the company ladder. And, during the course of the play, she loses her marriage. Talking about such things, she hopes, will help the other wives protect themselves and their families from being hurt. Yet, as the exactingly honest play makes clear, loss in this life is inevitable. And no amount of girding oneself against it will lessen the pain once its comes.

Directed with a clear-eyed lack of sentimentality by Barry Steinman, Three Hotels charts the demise of Barbara and Ken's marriage over the course of three scenes, each of which is a separate monologue. To the sound of piano music, the show opens with Ken in a hotel room in Morocco, making martinis in a shaker. As the music winds down, one repetitive note plays in counterpoint to the clicking of the stirrer against the side of the shaker, setting an ominous and lonely tone for the evening.

Ken regales us with stories of the war room at corporate headquarters in which the competition is tracked on an enormous wall map. He confesses that he's in Morocco to fire several men who have not been toeing the company line. And he talks about his wife Barbara, portraying her as a spitfire who is his conscience, who takes him to task for the macho moves he uses to get ahead, and who takes him down a notch by calling him by his real name -- Hershkovitz, the name his Russian communist father passed on to him, which he changed in order to advance in the business world. As Ken, Kwiat delivers a controlled, tightly-paced performance, salted with pauses that are setups for smug revelations. A man aware of his power, adept at game playing and posing, Ken is just the slightest bit too pleased with himself.

When we meet Barbara in the second monologue, she confounds our expectations, created by Ken's description in the previous scene, by being dreamier, more distant, and less confrontational. In a Virgin Islands hotel room during a company convention, Barbara recounts her speech, interspersing the story with anecdotes about her life with Ken. Daniel delivers a less flashy, although no less piercing, performance than does Kwiat.

At the close of the show, Ken has holed up in a hotel in Mexico -- the same hotel where he and Barbara honeymooned. The tough-guy facade has cracked; Hoyle the company man has reverted to Hershkovitz, a much more vulnerable, real, and devastated human being. The posturing that Kwiat brought to the first monologue gives way to anguish.

By their nature, monologues are more literary than dramatic: A single character often relates events that happened in the past. Such perspective tends to evoke the interior world of fiction rather than the situation-oriented and dialogue-driven reality of the stage. Pulling off a play consisting entirely of monologues can therefore be daunting, not only to a writer who is required to bring conflict to a frequently static form, but to a director and actors who must enliven material that leans toward reflection instead of action.

Nevertheless, despite the problematic nature of this format, some of my most deeply felt evenings at the theater have been spent watching monologue plays. English author Alan Bennett's Talking Heads and Irish playwright Brian Friel's Faith Healer come to mind. To this list I now add Baitz's triptych of scenes.

Baitz uses the monologue form to great advantage, exploiting its potential for intimacy by having his characters address the audience directly. By never having Ken and Barbara on-stage at the same time, Baitz emphasizes not only their physical distance but also their emotional and spiritual estrangement. And by focusing on the microcosm of a marriage, he incorporates complex themes within a simple structure: the connection between personal and political responsibility; sexism; business ethics; and identity. Such themes are played out at New Theatre against a purposely generic set -- a synthetic-looking hotel room equipped with a fake wooden dresser and night tables, inoffensive blue-gray carpet and a blue-gray upholstered chair, a pastel-color bedspread on a double bed -- that serves as three distinct rooms in three different countries.

Originally written for public television in 1990, Three Hotels was reworked for the stage in 1992. In this, as in his other plays, including The Film Society (1988), The Substance of Fire (1990), and A Fair Country (1996), Baitz draws extensively on the events and circumstances of his own life. His characters are often expatriate Americans, Jewish Americans, or both, in high positions in the corporate or public sector. Like many of them, Baitz spent part of his childhood overseas. (He went to prep school in South Africa). And like Ken Hoyle, Baitz's father marketed baby formula around the world, as an executive for Carnation. But Three Hotels transcends the autobiographical by offering authentic characters whose moral and emotional quandaries force us to consider our own.

Steinman illuminates those quandaries by eliciting heartbreaking interpretations of Barbara and Ken from Daniel and Kwiat. Only one section feels false -- Steinman plays music during a small part of Barbara's monologue, as if the director felt he needed embellishment because he didn't trust the text or trust the actor to pull off the text (which Daniel does with aplomb.) Yet this is a mere quibble about an otherwise accomplished evening that provides audiences with an all too rare synthesis: an honest, intelligent script; clean and lucid direction; and wrenching performances.

Three Hotels.
Written by Jon Robin Baitz; directed by Barry Steinman; with David Kwiat and Kimberly Daniel. Through February 9. For information, call 443-5909 or see "Calendar Listings.


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