It’s not news when a hotel room serves as a backdrop for a movie or photo shoot. But a play?
Welcome to Room 620 at the Hudson hotel. As noted previously, Green Eyes, a rarely seen one-act by Tennessee Williams, written in 1970 and published in 2008, is performed in this snug little suite through January 23. Fortunately for claustrophobic types, the play is short – just 35 minutes – with just two characters, a warring pair of newlyweds honeymooning in a seedy New Orleans hotel room.
The setting – the action takes place in the suite’s living room before a 14-person audience — is intimate in the extreme. As is the story, a violent, Vietnam War-era lovers quarrel between an impotent soldier home from the front and his voracious wife.
I wasn’t the only one intrigued by the idea of live theater in a hotel room. The entire run is sold out, though director Travis Chamberlain hopes the production can be staged again at a later date. I talked with Chamberlain about the play, his decision to stage it in a hotel room and his choice of the Hudson, known as much for its style (Philippe Starck designed the place) as for the parsimonious size of its rooms.
I’ve never even heard of Green Eyes, let alone seen it performed. How did you come across it?
I was invited to participate in a festival called The Unknown Williams Lab, which dealt with his little-known pieces published after 2008. Green Eyes was among them. Though it had been produced once as part of the Provincetown Williams Festival, it had never been performed in New York. I was really interested in doing a play that felt like what we know of Williams – the symbolic realism in Glass Menagerie and Streetcar and such – and Green Eyes just screamed that at me when I read it.
Why do you think Green Eyes disappeared 40 years ago?
I think of it as a play Williams wrote in a fury one night and put away in a drawer. I think he felt as a homosexual he was being demonized for being deviant. For me it’s a satire on the heterosexual bedroom, showing just as much deviance can exist there as in a homosexual bedroom.
Did you intend to stage it in a hotel room from the get go?
Yes. It’s a single-scene one-act play set in a hotel room. You’re basically in the room with this couple for 35 minutes and it’s some of the most intense 35 minutes of their lives. All the explicit things that would normally happen off stage in Williams’ great plays, like the rape of Blanche in Streetcar, happen onstage in this play. I wanted to take it to an extreme because I felt like the material was extreme. So I wanted it in a hotel.
How did you hunt down your hotel?
It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. We had a hotel that was very interested, but the rooms were way too small. So we went around to other hotels to try to find something larger. We went to some classic hotels, including one where Williams had actually lived. [ONY note: Williams once lived at the Hotel Elysee.] And we went to some very hip hotels, similar in style to the Hudson.
How did the hotels deal with your idea of turning a room into a performance space?
There was a process, which took weeks and always began with the special events manager, who would get very excited about the project. Then they would take it to PR, and PR would get excited. Then it would go to corporate, and sometimes that’s where it stopped. But if corporate was excited, the final step was the hotel manager. And in almost every case the general manager would freak out because of the content of the show. We went through this at seven or eight hotels.
So how did you land at the Hudson?
A colleague at the Museum of Arts and Design helped put me in touch with Yael Greenberg, one of the special events people at the Hudson. She turned it around in two days.
The Hudson’s famous for its teeny room. How did you find a space that worked?
I went around with Yael the first day and found the perfect room. Because it’s a hotel and rooms get taken, we narrowed it down to a series of rooms that looked similar, and they promised me one would be available. We wound up with Room 620, a small suite at the end of a hall.
What was it like to direct a play in such tight quarters?
Because the space is so small, every little detail of the actors’ performances had to be set. So what may look to be extremely out of control is in fact very carefully controlled.
Does the set look like a room at the Hudson?
It looks like a 1970s hotel within the Hudson space. We brought in our own bed and some nightstands that look like they’re in a shoddy hotel. And I painted the black velvet painting of the tiger you see over the bed. The room is meant to represent three worlds. There’s the naturalistic side of the show that’s set in New Orleans. There’s the expressionistic, psychological world that’s set in Vietnam, where the husband is psychologically stuck. And there’s the very literal world of the Hudson, where these three spaces overlap.
With just 14 people watching, do audience members bond?
It’s definitely intimate. After people check in, the audience gathers in the Library bar, where they can have drinks for $8. I come downstairs, introduce myself and take people up in two groups of seven. We try to get people to talk to each other. We think of it a bit like hosting a dinner party. The show ends on an intense note, and they can go down to the Library for drinks again.
Would you ever want to do a play in a hotel again?
I’m not opposed to it, but it has to be the right show. The next project I want to do is about Robert Mapplethrope and his studio.
That sounds interesting. Maybe a play at the Hotel Chelsea is in your future.
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