It's worth a visit to 'Hospitality Suite'

Stage review

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The "chief business of the American people is business," as that great sage Calvin Coolidge notoriously said.

Whether that's true, business is one of the favorite subjects of American drama, especially the spiritual cost to the shock troops of business, its salesmen. The masterpiece is Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" (1949), in which Willy Loman dies in pursuit of the salesman's dream. From there it's straight through to David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross" (1984), where the sales wars are more cutthroat, and we laugh in shock.

Continue a decade further and you come to a softer, lesser-known play in the Mamet tradition, Roger Rueff's "Hospitality Suite" (1992), which you might also call "life's a pitch." You may know its film version, "The Big Kahuna" (1999), starring Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito.

'Hospitality Suite'

Where: Claochlu Studios at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, 477 Melwood Ave., Oakland.

When: Through March 11, Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. March 3 adds a post-show party with food and live music; playwright Rueff will join a talk-back March 9.

Tickets: $20; 412-334-3126 or email cupajoprod@gmail.com.

Now, 20 years after its stage debut, "Hospitality Suite" arrives in Pittsburgh, and it's been worth the wait. I won't say it has anything new to say, but it says it with existential implications worth pondering, and the production adds a dimension that multiplies its perspectives.

The production by Claochlu Studios in a soundstage at Pittsburgh Filmmakers multiplies the play's physical perspectives by sitting the audience on one side and mounting two large video monitors behind the acting area. There we see varying images shot in real time from behind or beside us -- close-ups of faces, wide shots from different angles, mute details of the set and occasionally endlessly repeating images, when a camera shoots something in front of a monitor, like looking in a mirror that reflects a mirror that reflects the first mirror into dwindling infinity.

That doesn't always work, of course. Often the video images are merely static or banal. At intermission I questioned whether they were worth the trouble. But in Act 2, either the two cameramen became more adventurous, the action became more frantic (certainly true) or I started noticing more wit in how the video images commented on the live action (also true).

Notice that I refuse to call the video "live" -- it's the actors who are live. But the video images fracture perspective. They can also pull you away from the live action -- no pain, no gain. As is always true in theater, it's up to the viewer to choose what to watch; the images just increase the options, adding a skewed visual commentary.

The story? In Act 1, two veteran salesmen (their product is "industrial lubricants," which is witty in itself) are setting up a hotel suite for a convention open house where they hope to do some business. There's saturnine Phil (Everett Lowe) and motormouth Larry (Jeff Monahan). Oh, and also young Bob (Matt Henderson), who's along to serve drinks and learn.

Act 2 is after everyone has gone, when it appears their chief target, whose business can make them or break them, hasn't showed up. But he has -- he talked only to young Bob, and they talked only religion. But Bob has been invited to an after-party, so he is sent out to try to save the sale ... which is as far as critical tact will take me.

The dominant figure is Mr. Monahan's funny, sarcastic Larry, ever on the move, drinking, popping snacks, reminiscing with Phil and trying to teach Bob. Mr. Lowe's Phil has lost the thrill of the chase, but he provides a sort of (very sort of) moral center. And Mr. Henderson's Bob has very little to say, but it's enough to send the other two into a tailspin.

After all, if the business of America is business, where does that leave religion? Or vice versa? But the play has more to do than question that relationship. Its repetitive dialogue keeps questioning human purpose, relationship and our very presence on earth.

Yes, it's too long, especially in Act 2. But it's worth the trip.

Claochlu, a Welsh word meaning shape-shifting, is the conjunction of Mr. Monahan's 72nd St. Films and Mr. Lowe's Cup-A-Joe Productions. They have lots of plans.


Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.


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