Last Friday night, a group of more than 70 actors who had never been in the same room together assembled on the bleachers at the La Mama Annex on East Fourth Street. The occasion was not a cattle-call audition, as you might imagine, but the first run-through of Wallace Shawn’s The Hotel Play, which opens at La Mama tonight. The play, which is scheduled for only 15 performances between now and August 30, promises to become one of the major theater events of the year – not least because it features a cast of 75 to 80 people at a point in time when a depressed economy and the vagaries of Actors’ Equity’s Off-Off-Broadway showcase code would seem to preordain anything more ambitious than a four-character one-set comedy fiscal hara-kiri. Since Equity rules not only fix the number of performances at 15 but also dictate that no more than 99 of La Mama’s 400 seats may be taken each night, the scramble for tickets alone may be an unsightly spectacle.

This is primarily because of the extraordinary cast that will perform The Hotel Play. The core group consists of several people who started working together almost ten years ago in Andre Gregory’s Manhattan project: director John Ferraro, playwright Shawn (who’s also appearing in The Hotel Play), and actors Larry Pine, Tom Costello, and Angela Pietropinto. There are other actors who have been in Shawn’s plays before, such as Bob Balaban, Sakina Jaffrey, the New Yorker cartoonist Frank Modell, and Griffin Dunne, who plays Hotel’s central character, a clerk/bartender. Diplomatic appointments account for the inclusion of Dunne’s father Dominick, a film producer and the brother of novelist John Gregory Dunne [nb: obviously this was before he became a famous Vanity Fair writer]; Deborah Eisenberg, who lives with Shawn and recently collaborated with him on a screenplay based on an obscure Wyndham Lewis novel [nb: this was before she started publishing her phenomenal short stories and before the production of her play Pastorale]; and Maura Moynihan, daughter of the New York State senator. Another portion of the cast includes such wonderful New York actors as Mark Linn Baker, Ann Lange, Linda Hunt, Ron Faber, Deborah Rush, Michael Murphy, and Alice Playten. Finally, there’s a big batch of well-known non-actors, many making their stage debuts, whose odd interconnections present a fascinating slice of literary-theatrical society: novelist Ann Beattie, playwrights Christopher Durang, Ed Bullins, and Wendy Wasserstein, Random House book editor Grant Ujifusa, another New Yorker cartoonist James Stevenson, NYU theater professor Omar Shapli, costume designer Abigail Costello, “Poets at the Public” coordinator Lynn Holst, and a number of “real people” almost literally dragged in off the street. Not since Robert Wilson’s The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin has such a wide assortment of people come together to produce such a strange theatrical experience.

But equally a cause for excitement is the play itself, for Wallace Shawn is one of the most original voices in the American theater, and it is becoming increasingly clear that each of his works demands our attention. In the last few years Shawn has become familiar to the public as an almost ubiquitous character actor. He was seen onstage in Andrei Serban’s staging of The Master and Margarita and in Chinchilla at the Phoenix Theater, and he has appeared briefly in the films Starting Over, Simon, and Atlantic City – though you probably remember him best from Manhattan, in which he played Diane Keaton’s ex-husband, described by her as a “sexual beast” and by Woody Allen as “that homunculus.” But he has been writing plays for much longer than that. The best-known are the Obie-winning Our Late Night, produced in 1975 by the Manhattan Project, and Marie and Bruce, directed by Wilford Leach at the public last year in a production starring Louise Lasser and Bob Balaban. In between those two, however, his translation of Machiavelli’s The Mandrake debuted at the Public, A Thought in Three Parts played in London, and In the Dark – an opera by his brother Allen for which he wrote the libretto – was produced at the Lenox Arts Center in Massachusetts, as was The Old Man; three other plays have never been performed.

I didn’t see Our Late Night, which took place on a huge white sofa before, during, and after a sort of Upper East Side dinner party. But I’ll never forget reading in John Lahr’s Village Voice column years ago a tiny extract from the play’s central monologue, a terrifying and hilarious account of insatiable sexual arousal. I did see Marie and Bruce and will never forget the screamingly funny scene in the Chinese restaurant when the title characters unwillingly overheard a conversation at the next table about shitting blood. Shawn writes about contemporary life with a zest for detail and a flair for the fantastic that suggest the unlikely mating of Chekhov and Lewis Carroll; he can make the most trivial, fleeting comment sound unbearably sad and make the most bizarre grotesquerie not only believable but funny. His dialogue is so pungent and streamlined that characters are often introduced and dropped in a single line, much the same as cartoons in the New Yorker, which, incidentally, his father, William Shawn, edits. Yet Shawn’s preoccupations are decidedly his own. 

They are usually very simple and have to do with life as it is lived in the body, this very minute. His characters are always getting sick, throwing up, eating, or weeping, in the throes of sexual mania, or undergoing huge emotional moodswings. His plays, none of which lasts much longer than an hour, share a unique sense of structure that favors an elegant, day-to-night unity. The final scenes usually portray a man and a woman, still together despite all the upheavals that can occur in a day, or a life. And the last moment of the play will be like the last moment before one day becomes another, a moment filled with terror and inevitability: you’re either sleeping or awake, alive or dead.

How did The Hotel Play come about? “I wrote it in 1970,” said the playwright when we met at Phebe’s the afternoon before that first run-through. “Actually, it’s the only one of my plays that started from anything in the real world.” Wallace Shawn (everybody calls him Wally) is short, chubby, and somewhat pig-like, an impression he heightens by wearing a pink striped jacket and pale pink pants; his balding pate is ringed with a fringe of curly brown hair, his face is wide and pug-nosed, and when he periodically lisps his tongue rests between his front teeth in a cloud of spit bubbles, though his eyes are as clear and blue as the sky. Like his plays, Shawn’s appearance is so strange as to be actually beautiful. “My first two plays were written while I was living abroad – I wrote Four Meals in May in Italy and The Old Man in Ireland – so I had it in my head that I could only write when I was far away from anybody else. Ireland had been grim, however, and I wanted to go somewhere more cheerful. I had saved up some money working as a Latin teacher, so I went to an almost totally unknown island in the West Indies called Bequia. It was off-season, and for most of the three months I stayed there I was the only guest in this hotel. It was a strange island and a strange experience. At the time I thought I was a certain kind of writer; my first two plays were almost pure prose. But I soon learned it wasn’t possible for me to write that way on that island.”

Out of this unusual isolation Shawn dreamed up a play about a young hotel clerk who has romantic interludes in the morning, at noon, and at night, and spends the rest of his day – telescoped into two main scenes, “the morning bar” and “the night bar” – attending to the hotel’s eccentric clientele. The way Shawn envisioned the play, few characters would be seen in more than one sequence; ideally, then the cast would have to number between 75 and 80, including 15 to 20 non-speaking extras for the group scenes. Needless to say, he had no hope of getting the play produced this way, but at that time none of his plays had been produced anyway. In fact, his first production came about more or less by chance. Shawn went to see the Manhattan Project’s adaptation of Alice in Wonderland and met director Andre Gregory briefly afterwards; later, he sent Gregory his plays with an introduction from their mutual friend Renata Adler. Gregory was sufficiently impressed to ask Shawn to write something for the Manhattan Project, an assignment which resulted in Our Late Night.

Just as Shawn was announcing his conviction that the only way you get plays produced is by knowing someone, John Ferraro joined us at Phebe’s and confirmed this paranoid truism. It was at Ferraro’s instigation that The Hotel Play has finally been mounted; he had acted in Our Late Night, The Mandrake, and Marie and Bruce, but, he said, “The Hotel Play was always my favorite play of Wally’s.” Earlier this year, Ferraro directed a play called Green Card Blues, and when it was over the actors expressed a desire to stay together and do something else; the director immediately thought of Hotel. After calling Shawn and getting his approval, he took the idea to Ellen Stewart at La Mama.

“Ellen was great,” said Ferraro, a slender, energetic Italian who looks a youthful 35. “As soon as she heard how impossible it was, she said, ‘Let’s do it.’" The first hurdle was the union; since Ferraro was determined to cast one actor for each role, clearly he would be unable to pay 80 performers the Equity minimum. “It was a Catch-22 – if you had the money to do this play, you couldn’t do this play; if you didn’t have the money to do this play, maybe you could pull it off.” All Ferraro could count on was $5000 put by the Cooper-Keaton Group (Wilford Leach’s production company) and Ellen Stewart’s willingness to provide a theater and rehearsal facilities without cost. Surprisingly, Equity proved extremely cooperative. It helped that the play was scheduled for the dead of August, when there usually isn’t any work for actors in New York, and the scale of the event obviously made it beneficial for the participants, so Equity actors were allowed to work for a nominal $100 fee for the entire rehearsal and performance period (non-union actors donate their time). 

Once the union had granted its concessions around the middle of June, Ferraro and Shawn began the task of casting. John: “We made a list of the actors we all knew and just started calling them.” Wally: “It soon became clear we were gonna get some wonderful people.” John: “And that, in looking for just the perfect person for each role, we would even have choices.” Wally: “Painful choices. We had to reject some great actors.” John: “We finally ended up with a mix of the best actors with absolute amateurs. After we finished casting – which was just the other day, in fact – we had to start rehearsing in the most economical way possible, which meant breaking the play down into infinitesimal moments that could be rehearsed in small groups. This built up to two days last week when we brought in 35 people for the morning bar scene one day and 40 others for the night bar scene the next day. We expected chaos, but it went incredibly smoothly.”

Indeed, the first run-through on Friday night was remarkable for its efficiency, considering that the set was only half-built and that actors were still timidly introducing themselves to one another six days before opening night. Mark Linn Baker and Deborah Rush rehearsed their short, manically comic scene first because Baker had to rush over to the Public for two performances of The Laundry Hour; both he and Angela Pietropinto will be hotfooting it to another show during at least part of The Hotel Play’s run. It was especially interesting to watch the non-actors at work. Ann Beattie has only one line and a brief moment in the spotlight as she drunkenly looks for her purse, but she’s very funny, while Ed Bullins’s stately delivery gives one of the play’s typically mundane lines the edge of tragedy: “I’m so tired of eating…three meals a day, day after day.” Shawn himself, though, threatens to steal the show as the play’s most evil character, a man whose vicious monologue reduces his young wife (played by Ann Lange) to tears.

I pointed out to the playwright that it must be strange for a play he wrote in the midst of a deserted island to be suddenly at the center of such a monumental event. “Well, there’s a calculated plan for this play,” he said. “It’s a play about a lonely seducer. By having so many people, you can detect the loneliness of the character.”

“I think of it as a one-character play with 79 other people around,” added Ferraro.

Shawn: “And it will only be satisfying if the play becomes more important than the event.”

Ferraro: “Yes. There really is a play in there.”

Soho News, August 18, 1981