Off-Broadway Play Explores Cost of Corporate Success

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THREE HOTELS Play by Robin Baitz. At the Circle Repertory Company.

IN his previous appearance on a New York stage, in Jon Robin Baitz's "The Substance of Fire," Ron Rifkin played a Holocaust survivor who had completely alienated his family and destroyed his life because of the emotional callousness he had developed as a result of his experience.

In the current Off-Broadway production of the same playwright's "Three Hotels," the character Rifkin plays doesn't fare much better.

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The play, adapted from a shorter version that aired on PBS's "American Playhouse," consists of three monologues, alternately performed by Rifkin and Christine Lahti, set in hotel rooms in various countries (beautifully conveyed through Loy Arcenas's subtle variations in set design). The actors play Kenneth and Barbara Hoyle, a married couple who have lost each other as a result of Kenneth's rise to corporate power.

Kenneth is an executive for a company that sells baby formula to third-world countries, such as Morocco, where the first monologue, "The Halt & the Lame," is set. As he describes his job, and his particular skills in such areas as spin control (a talent much needed when it comes to selling a product that makes people sick) and firing executives who are no longer useful, we become aware, through Baitz's skillful writing and Rifkin's mesmerizing performance, of the high moral price that he has paid for his

success.

A more tangible price has been paid as well. The couple's teenage son has been murdered in Brazil for a fancy watch that was given to him by his parents. The resulting pain is particularly evident in "Be Careful," Barbara's sole monologue, which is the title of a cautionary lecture that she has delivered to other company executives' wives.

In the final monologue, "The Day of the Dead," Kenneth reveals that Barbara's speech was not quite what she made it out to be and that it has resulted in devastating consequences.

"Three Hotels" runs a mere 80 minutes, and its structure never allows its two principals to interact or even look at each other, save for a brief glimpse as one goes off-stage. The lack of dramatic action proves frustrating, and one wishes that Baitz had written in traditional rather than monologue form. The material is hardly subtle, dealing as it does with such obviously dramatic topics as unhealthy baby formula and the murder of a child, but still the playwright has created a forceful portrait of a co uple who have destroyed one another.

The play is greatly enhanced by the performances. Lahti is, as usual, superb, but it is Rifkin who gives the work its power. This brilliant actor conveys a moral force through his sheer presence. As he cynically describes the machinations of his corporate existence, the anguish underlying his words is all too clear. He and playwright Baitz, as in their previous collaboration, have created an indelible portrait of despair.

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