2 July 2011: Baitz, Three Hotels

Matinee. Play by Jon Robin Baitz. With Maura Tierney and Steven Weber. Directed by Robert Falls. Williamstown Theatre Festival, Main Stage. Performed without intermission. 1 hr 25 mins. Produced by Circle Repertory Company, New York City. Original production Powerhouse Theater, Vassar College, July 1992

This revival of a play now almost twenty years old is a good idea, and I feel lucky to have seen it. It raises what seems now like a perennial question associated with the rise and development of industrialism at the expense of the environment; it must have been sensed as apt for its time, and it is still apt. Production requirements are minimal: two actors (though they must be very accomplished and well experienced); three settings, but the scenes are more or less anonymous hotel rooms, which can be altered simply by moving furniture, sliding screens, and introducing a different back-piece. And the title is not just a convenient one. The fact that the action takes place, not in someone’s home, but in a temporary, transitional space that speaks only in the most general way about its occupants, confers on the characters, especially the man, a freedom from accountability, an easy anonymity, that makes difficult decisions easier.

The two characters are Kenneth Hoyle and Barbara Hoyle, whose marriage may be foundering because of the consequences of the loss of their teen-age son, murdered on a South American beach for his wristwatch, which he bought with funds from his parents and had the naivete to wear in a dangerous public place. Kenneth Hoyle works for a mega-company that sells infant formula in third-world countries, despite the mortal dangers caused by the mixing of the formula with water that is other than pure. Hoyle’s job is as a sort of hatchet man: he arrives at a hotel — here, in Part One of the play, it is in Tangier, Morocco — and calls local high-level managers in for a meeting, only to fire them brusquely, one at a time, for not achieving the company’s sales goals. He then departs for some other city of the same kind to repeat the process.

We come to understand this, and much more besides, about his present state and past experience. He was once in the Peace Corps, but that seems to have been in another life, almost, since the active conscience that took him and Barbara to foreign countries in pursuit of idealistic objectives has been much muted, and he is now an advocate for the unqualified pursuit of the bottom line. As he talks, we discover that he has just fired one of those managers and is about to welcome another candidate for the chopping block.

The quality of the acting is superb, and it tallies with the quality of the writing. It is no less than mesmerizing to hear and observe Steven Weber tell us, in a knowing way that takes us into his confidence, that this is the way business must be done, regardless of damage to the environment or to human beings themselves. Of course, Baitz knows that he is taking a calculated risk, giving us as his protagonist a character whom a liberal audience of the sort one is likely to find in theaters at Vassar and Williamstown and in certain theaters in New York City as well would find deplorable and despicable. The way the rhetoric of the dialogue works, however, is to allow Ken Hoyle to appeal to the audience’s maturity and experience of the way the world really works, and at the same time to lead them to admire a character whose morality they might find highly objectionable, but whose self-confidence and ability to achieve success they find, despite themselves, admirable, even compelling. The writing is that good, and it is sustained at that level through the act, and in fact through the play.

Before Part One is over, we discover, however, that Ken has undergone a change of mind. We begin to see the man whose idealism drew him to the Peace Corps when he was young. He explains that he has made a speech to the World Health Organization in which, to the surprise of everyone, including the protesters who have been picketing the meeting, he announces that his company has now officially acknowledged that their product has been killing thousands of third-world babies and that they are going to change their ways, admit responsibility for these crimes, and take appropriate remedial action. His announcement achieves amazing results. His photograph appears on the front page of the International Herald Tribune, and he is the subject of dozens of interviews. When local managers ask him whether the company is on board with this idea, he tells them it is. And in fact Kenneth argues that making this change is fundamentally good business. It is not good business to be internationally vilified; you lose sales as a result of that. Friendly business practice is good for business, he argues. But we begin to think that this may spell the end for him, despite his arguments. Still echoing in our minds are the words he spoke earlier about the all-sufficient bottom line.

Part Two, however, holds that potential outcome in suspense, while we turn to give personal and domestic matters our attention. This Part introduces Barbara Hoyle, the wife of the fabulously successful executive. Like her husband earlier, we see her alone. We see at once that she is deeply troubled, and clearly it is over the loss of their only son, Brandon. She is an intelligent, sensitive, attractive woman who has taken a quite realistic attitude toward what her husband has to do and, as a consequence, what she as a loyal company wife must do — and must refrain from doing. Because her husband is so successful, however, she has been asked to speak to a group of wives like her, gathered for a conference at a resort hotel in St Thomas, Virgin Islands. Still reeling from the murder of her son, and feeling that he died because of the life that her husband leads and that she too, as a consequence, leads, and consequently feeling deep, perhaps inadmissible guilt, she found herself instinctively gravitating toward telling the forbidden truth about what compromises wives must make if they want to promote their husbands’ careers. And so in her address to the gathering of wives, some new, some old hands, she tells some very uncomfortable truths, while, unbeknownst to her, one of the wives of Kenneth’s superiors records the talk. Barbara becomes aware of this after the fact, and she knows she has shot down her husband’s career. But she has told the truth.

Part Three takes us to Oaxaca, Mexico, on the Day of the Dead. Barbara and Ken had been here before, loved it, and promised themselves to return. In fact, Barbara had then told Ken that if she ever disappeared and he wanted to know where to find her, he should come to Oaxaca. She has indeed disappeared — it is unclear whether she is still alive, and the play lets this point remain ambiguous through to the end — and so Ken has returned to Oaxaca. In a fascinating sequence he relates how he himself became the object of the company’s official vengeance. He is fired by being offered a retirement plan which he is required to sign on the spot. The wife of one of the two vice-presidents who together are firing him enters, and she reveals her understanding and her humanity by persuading Ken to sign the document.

There is another dimension to Part Three as well. Ken is dictating the entire monologue into a tape recorder to send to his mother, who is declining and is being cared for in a Jewish home for the elderly in Baltimore. His mother, it seems, came from an eastern European country as a girl and married a non-Jew named Hoyle (evidently). He has found someone who will translate his narrative into her native language, which she speaks better than English. All these details come out piecemeal, on the fly, without disturbing the continuity of this, the second of Ken’s two monologues. We discover that it is no accident that he has come here on the Mexican Day of the Dead, when candles are lighted to evoke the spirits of the departed. In a final sequence, the upstage panels of the room move to the side, offstage, and as the lights dim we see flowering trees in bloom and then see Barbara enter, not transformed by any means but somehow radiant and changed.

It seems we are meant to see some hopeful sign in this last sequence, but the proceedings up to this point have been so heavily laden with seriousness and sadness that any kind of resolution, let alone a reconciliation (if indeed this Barbara whom we see upstage, at a distance, is alive and not a phantom), appears unlikely. In this play social issues are blended so inextricably with the personal plight of two intelligent and idealistic characters who have been willing accomplices in accommodating to the ways of the world, and have suffered great loss as a result, that we exit the theatre still plunged in thought about the complexity of it all.

Presumably that is the dramatist’s intention. It is a very carefully crafted play, in which the language of common talk is wielded so skillfully yet so naturally, and the opportunities for highly skilled actors are so great (and, let me add, opportunities for a gifted director like Robert Falls are also so much at hand) that we are drawn in quickly and remain deeply embedded in the fictional and emotional fabric of the play through to the end. It is crucial that the play be performed without intermission, as it is. There is a certain relentless quality to it: once embarked on the course of exposition — and the play seems almost nine-tenths exposition, while remaining wonderfully dramatic and tension-filled — there is no severing the line of attention without abandoning the enterprise altogether.

I would like to read other plays by this same playwright, whose name I did not know before, even though I now discover, in the program credits, that he was the writer (or perhaps one of the writers) for the TV series West Wing, as well as the author of a dozen plays and other works.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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