By Kendra Jones
I came across an archived snippet of an interview from Ali Smith today: “When you have love in the equation, you also have death in the equation. The love story is always about the threat and the promise of loss.”
Grief Hotel, by Liza Birkenmeier, captures this promise of loss, disbelief, loneliness, the uncertainty of ourselves, the last resorts, the last hopes we have to find comfort, even if it’s only in that moment. Grief Hotel shows the desperation, the internal battles we fight and lose. A disappearance of a mutual friend, Stanley Chi, brings two friends, Em (Nadine Malouf) and Winn (Ana Nogueira), together on a phone call—his disappearance builds additional concern for their already-burdened bodies.
Both girls are in relationships—Winn with Teresa (Susannah Perkins) and Em with Rohit (Naren Weiss). Both are in their thirties, and both find comfort in each other’s voices seeping with familiar traumas and familiar memories.
Em and Winn, and Teresa, and Rohit may be used to saying goodbye–I don’t know–but by our late twenties don’t we all become accustomed to saying goodbye to others, or even, ourselves? Maybe they have already grieved loss, anticipated grief. But what they aren’t prepared for in Grief Hotel is the ripping, shocking, sudden moment of the grief of a sudden loss.
Em is immersed in a relationship with an AI chatbot, Melba. Winn becomes intimately involved with a much-older country singer, Asher (Bruce McKenzie), famous off of that one song. He’s married, and they can only meet at his house during set hours. Prior to their awkward meet-ups, they text each other, and we hear how they want to sound, how they hope they sound through a screen, complete with emojis and LOLing.
Em’s aunt, Aunt Bobbi (Susan Blommaert), opens the play with an idea for those looking for time away. She speaks to us, narrates the difficult past memories at her lake house. She is a nonjudgmental, forceful, and thoughtful person. She’s determined to start a company, a business, something that will not just bring profit but service, relief, sanctuary. Thus, we have a grief hotel. Where one comes to immerse themselves into the nineties when times were much easier—in the nineties this cast were kids, and Aunt Bobbi’s house was the fun, party house. Now, twenty years later it becomes their escape.
Em and Winn had previously been in a relationship together, and had been friends for years, but it’s been a while since they have spoke. Em closes a bakery that she had opened with Rohit, and wants to close this chapter of her life: their relationship. They try to decide who will move, where he or she will move. Rohit becomes the first to visit Aunt Bobbi’s, the least expected to go first.
Rohit and Teresa are a bit disposable—I wouldn’t miss them if Em and Winn’s friendship was heightened, if their shared years and their individual grieving were painted further.
Aunt Bobbi tells us the shocking story of Em’s friend that pushed her into a lake and then ran at full force, without stopping, through a glass sliding door. The woman in front of me gasps so loudly, legs reposition, backs straighten against cushioned seats, as this visual of a teenager pushing her body through a glass door surfaces, the shards of glass under her, against her, protruding from her neck, sharp and penetrating. It was moments like these that captured me–the unexpected–and I want to see Em deeper, I want to see her break as she tells the story leading up to the accident, to see her grief in the aftermath of this sudden, traumatic death.
Winn’s affair with Asher comes to an abrupt end, when he very suddenly dies. His wife has gone through his phone at the hospital and found his texts with Winn. Winn may never have loved this man, but he was taken from her unexpectedly. She, along with Teresa, and Em all end up at Aunt Bobbi’s.
We’re at Aunt Bobbi’s when we learn that Stanley Chi had hung himself, and his body was discovered in a restaurant’s storage closet. This sudden grief hits Em and Winn, but the thought of Stanley Chi committing suicide at work–that unanticipated answer of his disappearance—shakes the entire group.
They’ve all made it here, and whether they leave Grief Hotel together, they will sing karaoke and dance to that one song that will transport them out of grief and guilt, even if just for a short time.
“…pretty much everybody needs a week. Or two.”
WITH: Nadine Malouf (Em), Ana Nogueira (Winn), Naren Weiss (Rohit), Susannah Perkins (Teresa), Susan Blommaert (Aunt Bobbi), Bruce McKenzie (Asher).
Creative Team: Mel Ng (Costume Design), Mashs Tsmring (Lighting Design), Jordan McCree (Sound Design & Composition).
Tony Award-nominated and five-time Obie Award-winning theater company Clubbed Thumb (Maria Striar, Producing Artistic Director; Michael Bulger, Associate Artistic Director) is proud to present the complete line-up for the 26th SUMMERWORKS festival of new plays. SUMMERWORKS is running May 18 – July 1, 2023 at The Wild Project (195 East 3rd Street) and features productions of three new plays.