“I wish my life was important to someone … that the sense that [life] is a series of random events would dissipate,” says The Girl in Purple (Georgia Lyman) in “The Hotel Nepenthe.” A series of random events would be a simple way to describe “Nepenthe,” the Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s new one-act drama directed by David R. Gammons, which plays at The Storefront on Elm Street until March 6. “Nepenthe” feels like a Haruki Murakami novel, surreal gems within mundane scenes; however, while the comedic aspects of the play are strong, the serious parts drag along, and only at the end is any satisfaction achieved.
Performed by four actors playing a total of seventeen characters, “The Hotel Nepenthe” shows a series of intimate interactions between disparate pairs of people: a Senator’s wife (Marianna Bassham) with a prostitute (Georgia Lyman); a slightly insane cab driver (Daniel Berger-Jones) with a hopped-up yuppie (John Kuntz); and a starlet (Lyman) with her one-night stand (Berger-Jones). The stories are everyday occurrences each containing one twist. For example, a man stuck in the rain (Kuntz) hails a cab driver (Berger-Jones) whom he finds out stuffed the real cab driver in the trunk. These unsettling interactions are seemingly unrelated except for slightly sinister references to the titular hotel, where characters attempt suicide, die, drug and murder other characters, and, most notably, steal the hotel’s trademark leopard-print bathrobes.
The mood of “Nepenthe” is dark in parts as many of the characters contemplate the perceived meaninglessness of their lives. However, “Nepenthe” spends more time on comedy than tragedy. Each of the characters uses humor to lighten the mood of their scene. “I gave him vodka, Lunesta … and Sleepytime Tea,” says the Senator’s wife of her husband in a well-to-do East Coast accent. Bassham and Kuntz were standouts on the comedic front, sometimes carrying their scenes unassisted. However, while the comedy worked well, some of the dramatic scenes lagged. Many characters’ stories are harrowing, and Kuntz, also the playwright, effectively conveys the play’s central theme of existential angst, but the cast sometimes fails to do justice to the material. While Lyman has some of the most powerful lines in the show, it is hard to identify or feel sympathy with her characters. Perhaps because she is forced to juggle the emotional baggage of four different characters, several of them feel one-dimensional and emotionally drained.
A large portion of the blame for the play’s dramatic failures is due to the staging. The venue is a basement with chairs along the back and side walls opening onto a series of changing rooms. In many scenes, it is unclear who is actually a character and who is waiting to go onstage for the next scene, and when the action on stage grows less compelling it becomes easy to drift away and watch the other characters waiting in the wings.
Other technical elements, including the light and sound work, are more effective. The sound effects particularly are chilling—classical piano accompanies the final tying-together of the different plot threads, increasing the revelatory atmosphere of the scene. Sometimes the effects are a little too prominent, especially the jolting use of airhorns to get the audience’s attention, but overall sound design is one of the play’s stronger aspects.
Despite some flaws in the staging and dramatic execution, there are many redeeming moments. The beginning scene where Bassham and Berger-Jones—as the Rent-a-car gal and bellhop respectively—discuss a murder that occurred at the Hotel Nepenthe is one of these high points. The gradual movements between the two characters create a sense of fear, and the slow movements of the girl who was murdered walking across the stage (Lyman) make the scene downright eerie.
The final reveal of “Nepenthe” is worth the wait. It is akin to a Twilight Zone episode, with an ending that makes the viewers say “Ahhhh … Now I see it.” With all four actors finally on stage together, the sheer amount of energy in the air—accompanied by a fantastic light and sound sequence—makes you forget the occasional tediousness that came before. “Nepenthe” fulfills the Girl in Purple’s desire for the sense that life is a series of random events to dissipate, and it does so quite beautifully.