Playwright Ed Dixon’s “L’Hotel” is the new Hotel California. You can check in, but you can never leave. In a boutique hotel across from the Père-LachaiseCemetery in Paris, several historical figures; Victor Hugo (Sam Tsoutsouvas), Oscar Wilde (Brent Harris), Isadora Duncan (Kati Brazda), Gioachino Rossini (Tony Triano), Sarah Bernhardt (Deanne Lorette) and, of all people, Jim Morrison (Daniel Hartley) comingle. They share a common factor; all of them were buried in the cemetery outside the door.
The historic and often histrionic figures snipe at one another for fun while a hapless Waiter (Evan Zes) devotes himself to their whims. They are in some in-between state between life and death. Wilde is dandy. Hugo is repressed. Bernhardt is chewing the opulent scenery. Morrison is making Limbo rock. Then, a young woman (Erika Cuenca) enters the famous French cemetery and festoons a small, unadorned grave with flowers, and, suddenly, there is a seismic shift in the world beyond. Bernhardt hatches a loony plot that involves an eerie incantation that will affect the future of their gravesite visitor.
L’Hotel is a strange beast. It’s a mash-up of “No Exit” and every Italian Commedia dell’Arte merged together. The Waiter, like Truffaldino, is a servant of many masters. He is buffoonish and childlike, a Gilligan surrounded by Howells. He is also the unwitting hero of this misanthropic menagerie.
The set is gorgeous. Scenic Designer James Noone pulls out all the stops. The eponymous luxury hotel is a dazzling sight. The centerpiece is a marvelous faux marble staircase with a scarlet carpet, befitting the grand entrances and exits for which it was built.
Costume Designer David C. Woolard provided wardrobe to match the elegant surroundings. Oscar Wilde looks as if he stepped out of a book and come to life (or afterlife in this case).
In the very late seventies/early eighties, bona fide bon vivant Steve Allen hosted the PBS classic show “Meeting of the Minds,” wherein famous historical figures debated a plethora of issues from religion, science, philosophy, etc. “L’Hotel” recalls those halcyon days where the dead debated armed with only a witty bon mot. It’s a delightful premise that needs further exploration: Picture a Hollywood Forever Cemetery version with Charlie Chaplin, Estelle Getty, Iron Eyes Cody and Mel Blanc.
Unfortunately, the play suffered a few grating flaws: Everyone was over-the-top. When everyone is trying really hard to outdo one another, it’s hard to care about any of them (a fault of the personalities of the aforementioned afterlifers, not of the actors). Also, the jokes were broadcast on a loudspeaker when a whisper would do. Not only did characters point to the jokes, they circled back, pushed you face down and rubbed your nose in them.
Despite its a few niggling flaws, there are some terrific performances.
Because she was unable to hear or see any of the celebrity specters, the Young Woman spoke in monologues to her departed loved one. Cuenca pulls it off with charm and aplomb.
Lorette and Brazda do a remarkable job as ambitious apparitions, and Triano’s buffoonish composer garnered the lion’s share of the laughs. He does, however, try to pull off a joke older than the cemetery itself (My eyes rolled so far back into the head, I thought I was going to need an optometrist).
Harris walked on the Wilde side with wit and grace. He plays most sympathetic character in the play, yet another unlikely hero in the tale of moribund masterminds.
“L’Hotel” is a little long on expository set-ups and speeches. A leaner, lighter version could make this show sparkle (it’s a two hours from start to finish, including the fifteen minute intermission). It might be a bit talky, but it’s never boring. The central conceit is intriguing and the characters are interesting, and there really are some top-notch performances, but, for a play about the afterlife, it lacked soul.
L’HOTEL continues at Pittsburgh Public Theater through December 14th. www.ppt.org