At the Hotel

Wallace Shawn has one of Hollywood's most recognizable faces. Since he shuffled onto the scene in the late '70s as Diane Keaton's "homunculus" of an ex-husband in Woody Allen's Manhattan, he's made countless big-budget films, playing everything from a balding nebbish schoolteacher (Clueless) to a balding evil mastermind (The Princess Bride). But the dazzling Hollywood looker is also a playwright of nightmarishly avant-garde proportions.

His best-known script has to be the 1981 art-house hit My Dinner with Andre, which he co-wrote and starred in with Andre Gregory. But anyone who's seen this compelling film, which focuses on one astonishing conversation between a director and a playwright, will not be prepared for the dreamscape that is The Hotel Play, brought to us by the dreamers at Infernal Bridegroom Productions.

The disturbing moments that make up this script take place over the course of one day in a hotel somewhere in the tropics. More than 50 characters meander through this world. But we learn almost nothing about most of them. One man complains that he's gotten a room with four bathrooms when he's staying at the hotel alone. Another is a doctor who's on vacation because he takes on his patients' symptoms when he examines them, even to the point of becoming impotent. We watch a wife made miserable by her wretched husband, who says to her as they sit in the cafe, "You have made yourself so hateful to me that I do not fear in the slightest the sight of your dead body." Few of these characters have names. In the program they're identified only by the weird things they do and say: Among them are Woman in Suggestive Clothes (Tek Wilson), The Couple Who Gets Bad Coffee (Elisabeth Jackson and Ron Reeder) and Man Who Tells Fish Story (Noel Bowers).

The anonymity of these characters is unsettling, and at first these chaotic snatches of dialogue are interesting only in their strangeness. But after a while it begins to feel like Shawn is up to something heady. The audience is put in the strange position of having to create the connections between the moments themselves. The hateful husband simply gets up to leave after reducing his wife to tears; the man with all the bathrooms disappears once he knows that they aren't going to cost him any more than three bathrooms would. Shawn's refusal to make any connections between the characters or to provide any familiar narrative structure that will tie these vignettes together starts to look like a sort of tone poem on the very nature of making meaning. The audience must make all these individual moments meaningful, much like a dreamer would after waking up from a nightmare full of seemingly unrelated images.

Only one character remains a constant throughout the scenes. The Clerk, played by the always bespectacled Cary Winscott, appears in most every scene like a hotel ghost watching over the guests. Winscott, whose wispy blond hair and pale thinness give him a particularly vapory presence throughout this show, plays his character with an almost deadpan blankness. He's like a tabula rasa onto which every other character can graffiti his or her complaint in swift hiccups of dialogue. Even during the scenes where he's busily trying to seduce the female guests, this clerk doesn't have much in the way of personality. He's a constant blank slate, a condition that further underscores Shawn's rumination on the strange disconnects of our lives.

These big ideas are punctuated with moments of humor. Shawn has said that there's a "farcical" glint to the show. This comes through at mostly oblique angles. One philandering guest has several male relatives that almost scare her lover away. Another pair of guests tries to enjoy an afternoon on the patio only to be interrupted by a series of too friendly strangers. This is the sort of humor that makes you smile rather than laugh out loud for the most part.

Directed by Anthony Barilla, IBP's production is perhaps not as tight as past shows have been. There are too many long blackouts, and the dialogue is often unnecessarily slow. Even the technical aspects of this production are a bit off when compared to many of IBP's past shows. Because of all the performers, the set often feels cramped to the point of being awkward, and the hotel rooms are so small (they have to be if they're all going to fit on one stage) that the actors don't have any room to move about.

But anyone interested in the avant-garde will find something worthwhile in this production. Shawn might be famous, but his plays are rarely produced here, and Houstonians can thank the folks at IBP for tackling one of his weirdest.

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Lee Williams