nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 9, 2006
Mountain Hotel, written in the 1970s, is receiving its English language premiere at the Brick Theater (translation by Jitka Martinova) as part of the Havel Festival. Michael Gardner's production is adventurous and quite a bit of fun, but I'm not sure how compelling a case it makes for this piece as a significant item in the Czech playwright/statesman's canon.
Mountain Hotel takes place in a resort that we presume is somewhere in Europe; time and place are relatively indistinct here, as is specific location in this staging—the characters talk about being in a garden but Gardner has reconfigured the Brick's tiny stage to create an enclosed claustrophobic room filled with sofas, desks, tables, and a piano as the setting for the play. The audience sits among, and in some cases on, this furniture; sometimes I had to really think hard to remember who the actors were and who the spectators were, which I think is one of Gardner's intended ideas about the piece.
Is it Havel's, too? Possibly: the play begins with its various characters putting forth whatever problems or obsessions occupy their thoughts, but it's not long before a creeping absurdism takes over and the characters start to exchange circumstances. Dialogue and bits of scenes that we've heard before are repeated, at first by the same people and then gradually by new ones. In the end, individuality has been erased and a chaotic chorus of nonsense has replaced it.
I tried to map the play onto a familiar context, and the reference points I came up with, given Gardner's design and approach, were Idiot's Delight and Grand Hotel—some kind of high-style crucible containing a cross-section of humanity on the verge of...something. Frequently in the play we hear the sound of a train, and all of the men on stage look at their watches. What are these people waiting for? On a few occasions, someone designated as the "Director" (actually two different someones) appears, reading a set of rules and receiving, from whoever else is on stage, fawning applause. Are these people somehow interred somewhere? Can they not get out?
After the play, I read an essay about Mountain Hotel that discusses Havel's own views about it; his starting point turns out to be Chekhov. In retrospect, I can see that; but Gardner eschews naturalism right from the get-go and so the Russian master's spirit isn't particularly evoked in this production.
Either way, though, the notion that what's happening to the people in (at) Mountain Hotel is also happening to us is valid and powerful. But I wonder if the loss of perspective that inevitably results from placing us so squarely in the middle of the action doesn't finally detract from the potency of the play's message(s), whatever they may be.
Gardner's staging choice certainly makes traffic flow and prop management problematic: there simply isn't very much room in this compressed space for the actors to move around and especially to handle objects such as wine glasses and beach balls that can have minds of their own notwithstanding the director or actors' intentions.
All that said, Mountain Hotel is always engaging and frequently amusing and certainly worth a look. There are some excellent performances from among the large ensemble, including standout turns by Bryan Enk as a melancholy European count, Fred Backus as a disaffected writer, Gyda Arber as a naive would-be siren, and Alanna Medlock as the hotel waitress. The design, which includes costumes by Isabelle Fields and lighting by James Bedell, features all manner of imaginative touches, my favorite of which is the seemingly endless supply of new knitting projects in new colors for one of the characters, a strangely solemn woman played by Moira Stone who seems utterly resigned to continuously starting over again without actually completing anything. Maybe that's what Mountain Hotel is ultimately about.