“The Hotel Nepenthe” was first performed in 2011, in a small abandoned thrift store in Somerville, Massachusetts. A subsequent larger production with the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston recreated that thrift store on stage. The Yale Cabaret makes no such move. The stage is dressed with a large gray office desk at its center; a couch and coffee table sit off to its right, and two chairs to its left. Mismatched books line the shelves along the walls, and the center of the back wall above the desk is covered in overlapping, peeling pieces of paper, each covered in type and scribbles. From the start, one can sense the stories the walls would tell if they could speak.
The cast is made up of four players — Bradley James Tejeda DRA ’16, Annelise Lawson DRA ’16, Emily Reeder DRA ’17 and Galen Kane DRA ’16. They all play at least four different roles, which they shift between with costume changes that are not deliberately concealed. The performances are all strong, and the characters distinct. Yet the reincarnation of Lawson as a mother worrying about her children, a conniving senator’s wife and the girl working the desk at a rental car company inevitably draws a connection between these characters — especially as the audience strives to draw connections between scenes that, at first glance, are wildly disparate. One of the characters, a dispatcher at a taxi station (Kane), expresses this idea in the middle of the play. He believes that there are “parallel universes,” in which “everything is backward … where all the same people exist, only different things happen … endless possibilities.”
Following the scene with the dispatcher, two players walk on stage as a bride and groom. The groom speaks to a bellhop, asking to be shown to the honeymoon suite. Their six-line exchange is then repeated again and again, each variation separated by a shrill noise made by the fourth player, dressed as a maid. What begins as a polite, unexceptionable interaction becomes a dialogue from a noir film, a musical number, a swashbuckling fight and a passionate love scene.
By the last variation, the two players have switched positions on stage, and each takes on the other’s original role — the groom speaking the lines of the bellhop and the bellhop those of the groom. The scene explicitly lays out the endless possibility inherent in two people sharing a single moment. Though grounded by this theme previously expressed by the dispatcher, the scene is utterly bewildering to watch. One of the exchanges takes place entirely in Italian; in another, the remaining players spray whipped cream into the speakers’ mouths. It makes no sense. It also makes complete sense.
Playwright John Kuntz called the play a “schizophrenic noir.” His plays, he said, “tend to be kind of non-linear and surreal. And kind of dreamlike — I write from dreams a lot.” Indeed, the prevailing sense in my stay at the Hotel Nepenthe was that of being in a dream, the sort in which people and scenes shift unquestionably. They reappear at random, and something seems familiar — vaguely so, only graspable for a brief, intensely satifying moment before the next startling shift occurs. Another character voices a line that hits upon that sense: “I wish that my life mattered, somehow. That this pervading sense that this is all just a bunch of random stuff happening would dissipate. And through all the chaos, everything would somehow make sense.”