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THEATER REVIEW : Capitalism and Conscience : Poetic Writing and Keen Insights Stand Out in Baitz's 'Three Hotels'

March 24, 1995|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

For anyone who loves to ponder the mystery of how smart men rationalize reprehensible actions, playwright Jon Robin Baitz has become the poet laureate. His insights into the thorniest issues of the American conscience have made him the heir to Arthur Miller.

In Baitz's "Three Hotels," beautifully directed by Joe Mantello at the Mark Taper Forum, Richard Dreyfuss takes over a role that Ron Rifkin originated onstage in New York. Dreyfuss brings a sprightly irony that will be a revelation to those familiar with the more Talmudic Rifkin, who L.A. audiences saw in Baitz's "Substance of Fire" in 1993. Chuckling with animated sarcasm (a boyish laugh virtually unchanged from the days of "American Graffiti") and yet looking ghostly pale, Dreyfuss is superb here. He often tosses off lines, minimizing the play's occasional too-writerly flourish, and hits all the anguish anyway.

Dreyfuss plays Kenneth Hoyle (ne Hershkovitz), a man who does the "gruesome work" of capitalism abroad. Ken markets a powdered-milk baby food supplement in "developing countries." When mixed with filthy water, as it often is in his marketplace, the formula causes disease and death. Ken sells it by using doctors on billboards and by putting saleswomen in nurse's uniforms. He describes his world as a place where "any action is justifiable as long as the results are profitable."

Baitz's writing is often exquisite. It's a good thing, too, because "Three Hotels" is a talky play, made up of three monologues--the first, by Kenneth, takes place in a hotel room in Tangier. He reveals his frank understanding of a culpability that is nevertheless rife with rationale. The third monologue finds Kenneth in a Mexican hotel room where he is searching for the soul that the company purchased long ago with cooks, cars and houses (perks reserved for employees who live in "developing countries").

In the middle we meet Kenneth's wife, Barbara, long-suffering yet completely alive to the psychic price of the life she and her husband have led. Christine Lahti brings a crisp intelligence to a woman who is watching herself fall apart.

Barbara has just delivered a speech to a bunch of corporate wives about to embark on an exciting life abroad. In her speech, titled with limp optimism "Be Careful," she crosses a line and mentions the unmentionable--her real feelings about an amoral company that exploits the tragedies in the personal lives of its own employees as surely as it does babies living in poverty.

Lahti is shatteringly self-aware as she relives her mid-speech breakdown. But the scene goes on a little past the point when we've learned everything we need to know about Barbara.

*

The interesting dilemma belongs to Kenneth, the more guilty partner. Baitz very infrequently ventures into cliche--when Kenneth explains that he doesn't find other people quite real, he sounds rather like Harry Lime from the top of the Ferris wheel in "The Third Man." But more often, Baitz brilliantly probes a moral problem of the kind that conflicted corporate executives rarely talk honestly about in real life.

When confronted with protesters waving pictures of babies with extended bellies, Kenneth "retreats into some manufactured Zen trance," he says. But this character is simply too smart not to understand the full consequences of his actions. "Three Hotels" goes to the truth behind the Zen trance, and that truth is devastating.

Through subtle changes in decor, light and ambient noise, Loy Arcenas (sets), Brian MacDevitt (lights) and Scott Lehrer (sound) transform a generic hotel from one distinctive warm climate to another.

Kenneth and Barbara never share this room, but pass each other as they leave and enter the stage, a slightly too poetic touch in Mantello's otherwise flawless direction. The young director (also known to L.A. audiences for having played Louis Ironson in Tony Kushner's "Angels in America") directed "Three Hotels" in New York, also with Lahti. Here, he has used a new actor to ring new music from the play. It's a pleasure to watch Dreyfuss employ his considerable comic gifts to go in for the kill on a role that's deadly serious.

* "Three Hotels," Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Saturday-Sunday, 2:30 p.m., Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Ends April 30. $28-$35.50. (213) 365-3500, (714) 740-2000, TDD (213) 680-4017. Running time: 90 minutes.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Richard Dreyfuss: Kenneth Hoyle Christine Lahti: Barbara Hoyle Evan Acosta: Attendant A Center Theatre Group production. By Jon Robin Baitz. Directed by Joe Mantello. Sets by Loy Arcenas. Costumes by Jess Goldstein. Lights by Brian MacDevitt. Sound by Scott Lehrer. Music by Rick Baitz. Stage manager Barnaby Harris.

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