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Pittsburgh by Ann Miner


L'Hotel and Smart Blonde
Pittsburgh Public Theater and City Theatre


Brent Harris
Photo courtesy of Public Theater
Local theatregoers are the recipients of a nice gift this holiday season: the opportunity to see two world premiere plays. The Pittsburgh Public Theater is presenting Ed Dixon's L'Hotel, and City Theatre offers Willy Holtzman's Smart Blonde. Both companies are celebrating their 40th anniversary and both plays bring the audience into a close meeting with famous people, all of whom have died. The similarities pretty much end there, but each show is fascinating in its own way.

L'Hotel is a comedy built on the premise that six celebrities of the worlds of literature, performance, and music have been residents in a purgatorial hotel in Paris since their deaths. At first, they seem doomed to repeat their daily rituals of coffee, argument, and displays of ego, but we eventually learn that there is a progression here, at least for some. It's not Hotel California. The hotel is surrounded by a cemetary (Père Lachaise, we can assume, as that was the original title of the play), and we see a young woman (Erika Cuenca), live, apparently, visiting a grave and talking to the the man who is buried there. Our hotel guests can see her, but she cannot see or hear them. They think she is the key to getting out of the hotel, once they receive a set of instructions through an interaction with an Ouija board.

Over the course of the play, clocking in at two hours with intermission, we get a condensed biography of each artist: Victor Hugo (Sam Tsoutsouvas) is cranky and doesn't get along with Oscar Wilde (Brent Harris); Isadora Duncan (Kati Brazda) still lives (well...) for dance; Sarah Bernhardt (Deanne Lorette) and Jim Morrison (Daniel Hartley) are pals; and Gioachino Rossini (Tony Triano), the most broadly written, is a bit of a fool, and a foodie. Tending to them in servant-like fashion is a Parisian waiter (Evan Zes). All of these people actually died in France over the span of about 100 years, and and all were, at least initially, buried in Paris (Pèe Lachaise, except for Hugo who was interred in the Panthéon—but Jean Valjean was buried in Père Lachaise, so count that).

Though based on real people, this is, of course, a fictional story. And the playwright can make up any rules of logic that he wants. Some are important to move the story forward: those in the hotel are aware of what's going on in today's world, and they all know (or know about) each other. Other things, maybe minor ones, don't make sense: some actors speak with accents and others don't; some appear to be the age of the characters at the time of their death, some don't. Since the one live person cannot hear them, we can suppose they are spirits, and leaving the hotel must mean going to their final reward, in whichever direction that may be.

The fun is listening to to the banter among these legends, even if it all doesn't advance much plot. Dixon has done some fine work in making them interesting while staying appropriate to what the average person probably knows about them (or didn't, until they hit Wikipedia at intermission). The least effective character is Morrison, but maybe that's because he is more contemporary; and he died so young, we really don't know that much about his personality. There is an emphasis on his sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll reputation, but Hartley really isn't given much to do here. Most interesting is Wilde, portrayed wonderfully by Harris. If there's a main character, it is Wilde, and we really get a nice long look at him, as he talks to Bosie, his muse and lover Lord Alfred Douglas, stays outside a lot of the silly group activity, and emotes Wilde-isms. Dixon's wordplay for the Hugo vs. Wilde verbal battles of wit are terrific.

The rest of the cast finely walk the line between portrayal and caricature, and do so quite well. Zes is a terrific comic actor—his waiter seems to come right from an Alan Ayckbourn frazzled waiter casting call. Cuenca as the Young Woman is just that—not her fault, but she's more a plot point than a character.

James Noone provides a gorgeous hotel set, one you wouldn't mind staying at—temporarily—and David Woolard's costumes add depth and identity. Ted Pappas directs succinctly, and not a moment drags.

Ultimately, there's a good foundation here (and for once, I was happy with the ending). I'm sure there will be tinkering before the next production, wherever that is, and Dixon's certainly got the chops to polish it up.


Andréa Burns
Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover
Meanwhile, at the City in the South Side, it's not unusual to see a brand new play. They are the local go-to company for new and nearly new plays (and sometimes small musicals). On stage now is Smart Blonde, Willy Holtzman's new play with music about Judy Holliday, which was commissioned by the City. The setting is Holliday's last recording session (the album Holliday with Mulligan), and it's pretty much a biographical piece about the beautiful, talented actress who died in 1965 at the age of 43.

Playing Holliday is Broadway vet Andréa Burns, and in the studio with her are Adam Heller and Jonathan Brody, skillfully playing numerous characters in Holliday's life. Burns sings ten songs mostly from the album being recorded and Holliday films (Burns' singing voice is much better than Holliday's—we don't mind). Though not physically a perfect match, she creates a full and convincing character, incorporating Holliday's distinctive voice (in and out of character) without overdoing it. Holliday is distracted during the session, waiting for an important phone call and, as she thinks back over her life, it is acted out for us.

Tony Ferrieri's set, Robert C.T. Steele's costumes, Ann Wrightson's lighting design, and Ryan Rumery's sound design join the audience with the intimate recording studio. It's easy to feel like someone just sitting in. Special mention is due Jonathan Brody for musical supervision and arrangements; his work with Burns elevates this straightforward tale.

Though her life was short, Holliday was unlike any other actress, and she made her mark on Broadway and in film (Born Yesterday, Bells Are Ringing), winning multiple awards. Her career began in 1938 in a nightclub act called The Revuers, which also included Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and ended with an out of town tryout of the play Laurette, about Laurette Taylor. She was married for ten years and had a son, then a long term relationship with jazz musician Gerry Mulligan. Though she wasn't blacklisted from film, her career was affected when she had to testify before the Senate subcommittee investigating subversive influences in the performing arts. She often played dumb blondes who turned out to be smart ones, and she was very intelligent herself, well into the genius range.

Through Smart Blonde, Holtzman, Burns and director Peter Flynn create a love letter on stage. For those who know something but not everything about Holliday, this is a side that's less known, and will add to their admiration. If enjoying her performances on film made you fall a little bit in love with her, you'll fall deeper. Anyone who knew nothing about her will certainly be encouraged to remedy that through videos and Spotify.

Spending an evening with Smart Blonde is like spending an evening with Judy Holliday. It's sweet yet wistful.


L'Hotel runs through December 14 at the O'Reilly Theater for Pittsburgh Public Theater. For performance and ticket information, call 412-316-1600 or visit ppt.org/.

Smart Blonde, commissioned by the City Theatre, runs through December 21 at the Hamburg Studio. For tickets and performance information, call 412.431.CITY (2489) or visit citytheatrecompany.org.


See the current Schedule of Pittsburgh Theatre.


-- Ann Miner



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