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A Place For Us: “Grief Hotel” reviewed

Here’s a pitch you don’t hear every day: Bobbi  (Susan Blommaert, arch and terrific) has a business idea for something called a “grief hotel,” an expensive, bougie experience for wealthy young people who have recently weathered loss to “get to catch up with reality, because time isn’t going to work right in your mind.”  For enough money, this “bespoke” experience” will allow guests to try and control time that otherwise has passed them by.

So goes the concept for Liza Birkenmeier’s deeply original, deeply felt, deeply now play, Grief Hotel, currently enjoying a second New York run at the Public Theater after being presented last year during Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks series (in a co-production between Clubbed Thumb and New Georges).

Fans of Birkenheimer’s earlier play, the playful and tricky Dr. Ride’s American Beach House, Grief Hotel looks at two urgent topics – loss and sexuality – head-on. Bobbi’s niece Em (Nadine Malouf) is married to Rohit (Naren Weiss). But her attention is focused on an AI chatbot, Melba, who she pictures as animated in human form by her ex-girlfriend Winn (Ana Nogueira). The real Winn is in an unsatisfying relationship with Teresa (Susannah Perkins), and searching for something else – “a novel experience of pleasure,” as she says. On Tinder, she meets Asher (the laconic Bruce McKenzie). He’s a country music singer long past his glory days.

This romantic wanderlust seems to be triggered by the jarring and inexplicable disappearance of their old classmate, which sends everyone off on their own 2020-ish version of L’Avventura. Director Tara Ahmadinejad’s staging emphasizes Birkenheimer’s thoughts on how we try – and fail – to connect. Most of the scenes in Grief Hotel take place between characters that are not even in the same room but conversing via text message, often with Bobbi centered among these other lives. This adds great dimension to the show; we physically see them occupying their emotional and mental spaces, rendering everything that much more literal. But it also serves another purpose. Aunt Bobbi’s house is a refuge for so many of the characters. (Even Teresa, who has never met Aunt Bobbi, inexplicably, ends up at Aunt Bobbi’s house, which Aunt Bobbi accepts nonchalantly.) Aunt Bobbi does not dwell on the tragedies that have befallen her but they sit in this room with her and you can see them in Blommaert’s manner. She is not so much haunted by but living with the losses. (And isn’t that even more hard-hitting?)

There is so much intertextual commentary about how we live now to be found in Grief Hotel: Birkenheimer has conceived a world where ideas can become reality and wishes, truth. In which anything can be marketed, communication is tantamount to branding, relationships are largely transactional and unfulfilling. In which love is eventually mistaken for more tangible, transitory comforts.

That last paragraph makes Grief Hotel sound heavy. In truth, it is not. Birkenheimer’s arch sense of humor makes all of these points go down smoothly. Winn, remembering a sort-of date with the missing Stanley, notes, “He brought something horrible.” “Like a gun?” asks the alarmed Em. “Lunchables,” Winn replies. And Birkenheimer successfully clocks how the younger generation’s inability to articulate their needs has reached a new plateau that is both impoverished and yet also expressive in its own right., as in when Teresa is trying to understand why Winn is upset, they immediately fall back on fixating over domestic minutiae: “Okay I’m throwing this away. And also the pasta thing you left in the thing.”

Ahamdinejad’s cats navigates this material with the skill of seasoned tightrope walkers, all of them, particularly Blommaert, Malouf, and McKenzie, all of whose deadpan deliveries underscore the heft of these life-in-crises stories but put a spin on it. We try and control our lives and drive away the bad, but we can’t. Thank goodness there’s a grief hotel for these characters.

And thank goodness there is a Grief Hotel for us theatergoers.

Grief Hotel
Public Theater