Watch “Three Hotels” below through Saturday January 30, 2021
Bobby Cannavale and Marisa Tomei portray a couple who began in the Peace Corps aiming to change the world and found that the world changed them.
Originally a TV drama, then reworked for Off-Broadway in 1992, Jon Robin Baitz’s early play, presented in this new riveting online production as a fundraiser for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, is inspired by a scandal from the 1970s. The Nestle Corporation had aggressively marketed its baby formula to poverty-stricken African countries, which, because of conditions in those countries (such as the lack of potable drinking water with which to mix the formula) resulted in infant illness and death. Cannavale is Kenneth Hoyle, an executive in the company: Vice-president of Marketing and Third World Affairs.
When we first meet him, he is alone in a hotel room in Tangiers, rationalizing his job, which has become mostly firing employees in corporate posts around the world, presumably because of fall-out from the scandal. As he tells his stories we start to get clues that there is a fallout in his marriage too; his wife seems to disagree with what he says, and what he does, and what he thinks – though he says “ I do try not to let politics get in the way of what is, at the core, a really good marriage.” The more he speaks, the more we realize that he too is distressed at he’s doing for a living – at what he’s become.
There are a couple of ways in which “Three Hotels” seems well suited for the current moment. It’s not distracting as a socially distanced streaming video, because the play is three monologues, in chronological order, each set in a different hotel – Cannavale in Tangier, Morocco, then Tomei in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, then Cannavale in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Of course, all three scenes are actually taking place in either Cannavale’s or Tomei’s home, but even this works, since hotel rooms look virtually the same wherever they are located. The hotel settings help advance one of the themes of the play. At one point, Ken tells us “when I fired people, or made some sort of bad deal, I did it in a hotel; for some reason, in a hotel, nothing sticks. It’s all transitional and you’re never stuck with the vital you.” The hotel seems like a metaphor for the transactional, amoral nature of corporate life, and, perhaps, for Americans who are not just ethically but psychologically adrift. “Three Hotels” is a story not just of individuals morally compromised, but of a marriage betrayed. That this American couple are named Kenneth and Barbara – Ken and Barbie – feels no more of a coincidence than Edward Albee’s characters being named George and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”
That each character is alone telling us their side of the story offers a lesson in the vagaries of memory and perspective. We learn things from Barbara – intense, tragic — that Ken didn’t even mention; and then we learn from Ken that Barbara remembered some things differently – less in-your-face — than the way they actually occurred.
The story deepens as it unfolds, as do the characters, Ken’s initial cool and Barbara’s snark peeled away to reveal wells of loss and anger and regrets. We surely experience this more vividly thanks to Moisés Kaufman’s direction and the two pros’ layered acting.
In his introductory remarks in this 90-minute video, Baitz, who went on to better-known works as the Pulitzer finalists A Fair Country and Other Desert Cities, (as well as a TV career including The West Wing and Brothers & Sisters), sees another way that “Three Hotels” fits our current moment. He wrote the play, he says, to explore the ways “our responsibilities to ourselves” collide catastrophically with the institutions to which we belong, “and how in that collision we discover who we really are…. Today, revisiting the play almost 30 years later, I’m struck by how at this moment we’re confronting the tragic aftermath of what happens when the greed and failure of empathy depicted here turn into actual policy.”