Phoenix Theatre: 'The Hotel Nepenthe' offers rooms with a view, even to those who never check in

Bellhop (Scott Van Wye) holds the telltale hatbox, flanked by Betsy Norton and Jolene Mentink Moffatt.
Have you ever had any truck with bibliomancy? Me neither: who could hope to get insight or guidance by opening a book randomly and finding just what you need there?

People who believe in it often use the Bible. If you don't get insight from the first passage you lay eyes on, the process permits a few tries. But not too many, because then it wouldn't be random. Chance has to remain in charge; to Bible believers, the chance that seems to rule the effort is really the guiding hand of the Author.

Bibliomancy has seemed worth my trying only once  — last night, after I got home from the preview performance of "The Hotel Nepenthe," a play by John Kuntz that will run at the Phoenix Theatre through March 24. The 95-minute one-act engaged me, but I needed a key to it in retrospect. What book might be equal to this show's concatenation of mystery and fun, its shuffling of encounters between people, its multiple levels of meaning?

No contest. I opened "Finnegans Wake" by James Joyce, the classically confusing word-mad portrait of night, hoping something there would tell me just what to make of "The Hotel Nepenthe." After a few brief page flips, there it was, on page 143: "The answer: A collideorscape!"

A senator and his wife greet well-wishers at a rally; nepenthe will follow.
The punned-upon real word shines through the neologism. That's it! The production is a kaleidoscope of sights and sounds in addition to the rapidly changing patterns of human interaction, with four actors playing a host of people, all under the shrewd direction of Phoenix artistic director Bill Simmons. Credit Michael Moffatt and Brian G. Hartz, respectively, for the well-coordinated lighting and sound design. The edgy original music by Jordan Munson helps keep the nervous vibe foremost. And Kuntz keeps turning the tube right through the magical finale.

In Joyce's "collideorscape" we have the play's themes of people colliding as well as seeking escape. The "or" in the middle is the toggle switch, the fulcrum of the action's teeter-totter.  These are often needy folks who have trouble perhaps identifying their needs, but certainly in devising a way to ease the pangs of need and regret. Which way should they turn? How can they get what they deserve? But check that! As Hamlet warns Polonius: "Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

The opening encounter sets the tone for just one kind of the show's display of thrust and parry. The first is a contest of curiosity versus conscience as Jolene Mentink Moffatt's nosy car-rental worker tries to find out what's in the hatbox that Scott Van Wye's bellhop has brought over from the Hotel Nepenthe. The contents will eventually be revealed, on the order of the Chekhov dictum that if a gun is mentioned in the first act, it will go off in the last. It's one of several tie-ins Kuntz supplies from scene to scene, most of them abruptly introduced and released in the best "collideorscape" fashion.

Right behavior is never far from being a central concern, even when that concern is blithely set aside. Protecting the vulnerable is a keynote as well. The temptation to do otherwise is ever-present: "You can hide a dead baby anywhere!" is a repeated shocker of a line. Despite challenged inhibitions and the feeling that all norms can easily be unstrung, this is a moral play, including when it sends up conventional etiquette. A swift series of blackouts with Ben Asaykwee's tophatted groom asking the bellhop to take the newlyweds' luggage up to the bridal suite spins the wheel freely (comprising balletic turns, combat, farcical shouting, and lasciviousness) around the banal request and compliance with it.

The cigarette icon
Nepenthe is a substance supposed to bring the balm of oblivion to unhealed wounds. The play's suggestions as to how easily we hurt others and ourselves flow constantly as the scenes change against the spookily grand, sleek, all-purpose backdrop of Daniel Uhde's set. A starlet (Betsy Norton) gabs self-indulgently while she gets it on in a bathtub with an eager lover, then spins off into a name-dropping extravaganza that brings in more well-known figures, past and present, than the cover of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." It's one of several displays of talkativeness — as brief and brilliant as Catherine's wheels in a fireworks show. They are distributed among the four actors liberally, and contrasted with painfully taciturn, even cryptic, pyrotechnics that just go "boom!"

Danielle Buckel's costume and property designs straddle the boundary between realism and fancy, some of it retro, some if it underlining the ambiguous note in the program that the time of the play is "maybe now...maybe not." The bellhop's uniform recalled for me the old Philip Morris cigarette ads, an unintentionally comical reminder of mortality. Or else the image of the organ grinder's monkey. He is the very picture of any hotel's inherent blend of intimacy and strangeness, of order and randomness. Of all 20 characters, this one is most emblematic of "The Nepenthe Hotel"'s thematic obsessions. The cast plumbed them with slightly menacing, inviting charm Thursday night. The kaleidoscope shimmered and glowed along the lines of the Joycean collideorscape.

[Phoenix production photos by Zach Rosing]


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