Checked Out

Good actors can't enliven sad and slow 'Three Hotels' at Beowulf

"I came of age in hotels," says businessman Kenneth Hoyle in Three Hotels, at Beowulf Alley Theatre. "When I fired people or made some sort of bad deal, I did it in a hotel; for some reason, in a hotel, nothing sticks."

As played by veteran Tucson actor Roberto Guajardo, Kenneth is a moody, slouching man in defeated middle age. He has his reasons for feeling troubled. While working as an international business executive, he has dragged his family all over the world, from Africa to Brazil, a choice that has come at great personal cost.

And the job itself has required ignoring moral scruples—Kenneth, you see, was in charge of marketing baby formula to poor populations in the "developing world" (a term he uses with bitter irony). The baby formula proved unsafe and resulted in the death of children.

Hotels may make Kenneth feel as if everything is transitory and "nothing sticks," but Jon Robin Baitz's play suggests that the characters are indelibly marked by their decisions. For Kenneth and his wife, Barbara (Susan Arnold), the couple at the heart of this two-person drama, the past is still very much alive and sticking.

In this slow, sad and slightly boring play, we must look to the past for any tension. All of the action is retrospective. Three Hotels consists entirely of three monologues—each delivered in a different hotel room—first by Kenneth, then Barbara then Kenneth again.

We see the two characters only after something vital has occurred; we listen to their accounts of their tragedies and disappointments and of dramatic scenes in their past, both distant and recent. But we never get to observe those scenes.

This is a challenge for Guajardo and Arnold, who must give us a sense of their characters' internal lives and conflicts without benefit of a fellow actor onstage to play against. Both are strong, experienced actors—but neither is able to make the monologue-only script gripping.

Director Michael Fenlason keeps his players fairly static. Admittedly, he couldn't do much blocking, given that each character is alone in a hotel room. Still, opportunities for interesting visuals have been lost: the actors simply speak, sip their drinks and gaze out the window.

The set stays the same for each of the three scenes. Designer Jim Ambrosek created a lovely, pink-trimmed hotel room, but it doesn't change, even as we move from Kenneth's opening monologue in Tangier, Morocco, to Barbara's speech in the Virgin Islands, to Kenneth's final reflections in Mexico.

Perhaps this sameness is meant to indicate how similar hotel rooms are all over the world. Yet if that were the point, why not make the set more minimal and evocative? The hotel room is detailed and realistic—but unchanging, even though Kenneth's circumstances have altered significantly between his first and second monologue. Even minimal changes to the décor would have helped to communicate his journey.

Writer Baitz composed Three Hotels when he was 30; it premiered off-Broadway in 1993. The play drew on his own parents for inspiration. His father was an executive with Carnation, and Baitz grew up traveling with his family between South Africa and Brazil. Since he wrote this work, he has gone on to explore the semi-autobiographical themes of Americans abroad and familial conflict in such successful plays as A Fair Country, The Film Society and The Substance of Fire.

An older, wiser Baitz might have written Three Hotels differently, dispensing, perhaps, with the unwieldy monologue structure. And despite moments of empathy, there's something of the arrogant judgment of youth in his portrayal of Kenneth and Barbara as morally compromised.

Both actors work hard to make Kenneth and Barbara sympathetic, but there's little nuance. Arnold's Barbara is fragile, someone barely holding it together. For instance, when she recounts a disastrous lecture she gave to wives of company executives, she strains to keep her cool. Instead of toeing the company line, she spoke candidly about the moral evils of Kenneth's work and of the tragedy that befell their son while living abroad.

One wishes that Arnold would let Barbara break a little more. While there's interesting tension between what Barbara says and the composed way Arnold delivers the lines, we don't see the depths of the character's sorrow.

By contrast, Guajardo's Kenneth is so wounded right from the start that his performance doesn't quite have enough room to grow. There isn't enough difference between the Kenneth of the first monologue and the Kenneth of the second. If Guajardo had let Kenneth be cooler—more of an amoral ass—in the beginning, his vulnerability in the end would have been more effective.

Guajardo and Arnold do deliver some moving moments, but Three Hotels leaves one feeling a little checked out.

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