Nobody writes bad guys like Jon Robin Baitz. The most Stoppardian of our young playwrights, Baitz builds his plays around loquacious antiheroes, whom he imbues with keen wit, elegant intellect and smoldering passion. Indeed, Baitz’s intellect still seems to run several years ahead of his craftsmanship, but that just makes the unfolding of his enormous talent all the more delectable.
The central figure of “Three Hotels” is Kenneth Hoyle (Ron Rifkin), a former Peace Corps volunteer whose idealism has been wholly transmuted into a particularly vicious corporate cynicism.
In the first of the three monologues that make up this 80-minute play, he mixes morning martinis in a Tangier hotel room while detailing the particulars of his job, which consist mainly in excising the “dead wood” in a multinational company that markets infant formula in Third World countries.
Ken Hoyle is a sublime amalgam of clear-eyed ruthlessness and virtue so compromised as to be barely detectable. He is capable of joking, on the one hand , that if his product were colored “like Fanta, we’d knock ’em dead in Lagos,” and on the other, drawing a chilling analogy between baby formula and Cyclon B, Hitler’s gas of choice for the extermination chambers at Auschwitz and Treblinka.
He has dressed actors like nuns and doctors to push his product, even in the knowledge that its abuse is a death sentence for a generation of children.
The Hitler analogy brings to mind the late C.P. Taylor’s play “Good,” which traced the subtle transformation of a good man into a Nazi.
The second monologue in “Three Hotels” is delivered by Barbara Hoyle (Christine Lahti), whose account of a speech before the wives of young executives in St. Thomas has turned from survival tips to a wrenching account of the murder of their 16-year-old son in Brazil.
Barbara’s words carry all the emotional weight of what the Hoyles have lost, individually and as a family.
The third monologue, Kenneth again, now in Mexico, has a certain inevitability that flows from the previous two. It is spoken as a letter dictated to his senile mother, beginning with his firing in the wake of Barbara’s speech and ending with his gentle, overwhelmingly sad rendition of a Yiddish lullaby.
In Rifkin — who originated the role of the publisher in “The Substance of Fire”– Baitz has been blessed with an incomparable vehicle for his marvelously theatrical voice.
Rifkin’s conversational tone heightens the sense of intimacy we feel as these lives are revealed. The same holds true for Lahti, who traverses a broader emotional plain and does so winningly.
Is “Three Hotels” a play? No, though it’s more powerful than many a more populous, conventional work.
And Joe Mantello’s unfettered production is simply perfect. Not only because of the graceful, unpushy performances of two fine actors, but also because of Loy Arcenas’ straightforward set, Brian MacDevitt’s beautifully nuanced lighting and Jess Goldstein’s on-target costumes.
“Three Hotels” was originally commissioned by public television. This version has the thrilling effect of giving us an update on the workings of one of the most searching minds at work in the theater today. The news is great.