Jim Morrison of The Doors, one of rock music’s legendary bad boys, was found dead in his Paris apartment in 1971. How it happened remains a mystery, as it is not clear what the brilliant but erratic Morrison was doing in the hours before his death.
But we do know what he’s been doing since then. He’s been in a torrid posthumous affair with actress Sarah Bernhardt, who died in 1923. And, along with Oscar Wilde, Morrison teases poor Victor Hugo so relentlessly that the great French writer can’t finish his morning coffee without choking.
All this and more can be learned by watching L’Hotel, the new play by Ed Dixon that’s in its world-premiere run (through Dec. 14) at Pittsburgh Public Theater. And the only way to sum up L’Hotel in a few words is by saying that it’s an odd duck of a play.
It walks, talks, and quacks like a frolicking literary/cultural farce—for after all, with characters like the witty Wilde (played spot-on by Brent Harris) on board, how could it be anything else? Yet in the second act, L’Hotel turns serious, as each character comes to grips with the fact that he or she is a dead duck.
The Hotel, the Barbs, the Cheese
The setting is the lobby of a grand old hotel in Paris, which turns out to be a sort of high-end Limbo for the souls of the A-list deceased. In addition to the luminaries just mentioned, the guests include opera composer Gioachino Rossini (played by Tony Triano) and dancer Isadora Duncan (Kati Brazda). They’re all at each other’s throats—in one case, literally.
Duncan died in 1927 when she climbed into an open touring car wearing an extravagantly long silk scarf. The fluttering end got caught in the car’s rear wheel, yanking her to the hereafter, and Wilde won’t let her forget it: “You lost your head from over-accessorizing,” he sneers.
Morrison (Daniel Hartley), swaggering and lounge-lizarding around the swanky joint in his skin-tight leather pants, catches heaps of scorn from his more dignified fellows, who see him as a crude purveyor of trashy pop culture. But Morrison flings the pop-culture tar brush right back at ‘em.
He mortifies Rossini by dancing a pantomime to the composer’s William Tell Overture, better known today as the theme music of the “Lone Ranger” TV series. And poor Hugo (Sam Tsoutsouvas) turns apoplectic when Morrison reminds him what’s become of his masterpiece, Les Miserables. The rocker leaps atop a table and belts out the opening of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from Les Miz.
You’re probably getting the picture. Much of the humor in L’Hotel comes from this gaggle of dead artists firing barbs at one another’s artistic reputation. (Hugo to Wilde: “You were never really a writer, just a personality.” Wilde: “What an odd comment from somebody who never had one.”) If that’s your cup of tea, you will have a laugh a minute.
Or maybe not so much, if you find the characters to be stereotypical and their banter predictable, as my TGB (Theater-Going Buddy) did. “Cheesy,” he muttered at one point.
Then again, TGB had a cheesy grin when he said it. And that’s how satire works, by turning characters into caricatures. Furthermore, if you want to get into advanced metrics of the kind now used to analyze the performance of athletes and sports teams, I can tell you that on the night I went, L’Hotel had an SOF of 75. (SOF = Standing Ovation Factor. An estimated 75 percent of the audience gave the play a standing O.)
As for me, I’ve got a brief personal reaction I can give you—plus something more substantial to think about. Personally, I felt L’Hotel gathered steam considerably after a spell of that old theater bugaboo, first-act-itis. A lot of the initial act is exposition peppered with jokes, and I was, like: Okay, I get it, but where is this thing going?
Then I saw where it was going. Which can best be appreciated, maybe, by understanding where it’s coming from.
The Gang’s All Here!—But Why?
L’Hotel is a new entry in a small but intriguing fantasy genre: plays in which historical figures from various times and places meet in a common setting. Whether a coincidence or not, a couple of such pieces have played on Pittsburgh stages recently.
Assassins, a Stephen Sondheim musical from 1990, brings together the Americans who killed or tried to kill a U.S. president: John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, and seven more. The Scotch ‘n’ Soda musical theater group at Carnegie Mellon staged Assassins last year.
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot imagines Judas on trial in Purgatory, where Mother Teresa, Sigmund Freud, and others debate whether he should go to Hell. Stephen Adly Guirgis wrote the play in 2005; Pittsburgh’s Throughline Theatre Company did it this fall.
And now, hot on the heels of Judas, comes L’Hotel. It’s a bigger deal locally than either of the above, since it has been commissioned by The Public, a big theater company known to many more people. Still, a basic question must be asked about all plays of this kind. Why use the bringing-famous-figures-together device in the first place?
Assassins uses it to explore the threads of violence in our society (and does the job commendably while painting distinctly human portraits of each assassin). Judas Iscariot uses the device to take a sweeping look at justice and compassion. Both plays, like L’Hotel, pack the freight with lots of humor.
And that freight arrives in L’Hotel as the characters reveal what they really want. For openers, they want their work to be important, valuable… immortal. There are some laughs to be had from that—along with glimmers of deeper insight—as they go about puncturing the other artists’ balloons. (Duncan tries to make her every move a flowing, sensuous dance. Finally Morrison barks: “What’s this dance obsession? It’s just a substitute for sex.”)
But what they ultimately want, and what I think ultimately touches the audience deeply, is that they want out of the darned house of the dead. They want to live. As Woody Allen once said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality by not dying.” Don’t we all?
To wrap this up while being mindful of the SAF (Spoiler Avoidance Factor): The characters in L’Hotel discover a trick whereby they believe it is possible to be reincarnated. The trick has a catch, however. It will work for only one of them—for the lucky one, the chosen one, the one who is able to make it work.
Tips to leave you with: As in mystery plays, watch out for The Waiter (played by Evan Zes). There’s more to him than you think. And at the play’s end, you may be surprised to see who finds salvation.
Closing Credits and Ticket Info
Dixon’s L’Hotel is directed for Pittsburgh Public Theater by Ted Pappas. In addition to the actors named, Erika Cuenca plays a young woman visiting the cemetery near the hotel. Even this reviewer’s crusty Theater-Going Buddy agrees that every member of the cast performs brilliantly. Through Dec. 14. At the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District. For tickets visit The Public or call 412-316-1600.
Photos courtesy of Pittsburgh Public Theater.
Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based writer and editor, covers theater for Entertainment Central.