Center Theater

Hotel Universe is like an episode of thirtysomething written from an existential perspective. Seven self-absorbed young people sit on the terrace of a house in the south of France, brooding about a suicide they recently witnessed. (The young man turned, smiled, said “I’m off for Africa,” and dove to his death in the ocean.) Except for Hope, a mother content to care for her children, all of them are dissatisfied with their existence.

Hope’s husband Tom has lost his religious faith and can find no meaning in life. Their friend Pat, a cynical brat whose only activity involves spending his vast inheritance, is on his way to the Alps, where he apparently plans to slip off a mountainside and die. Lily, an actress, has fresh scars on her wrists from a recent suicide attempt. And although Norman, a wealthy banker, has never considered suicide himself, he admits that “if I knew I could save my life by changing from this chair to that one, I doubt if I’d move.” Ann, the hostess, and Alice, a rather dim, underwritten character, are in need of men to love.

Cheery bunch. But this bleak vision of life belongs to Philip Barry, best known for such lighthearted comedies as The Philadelphia Story and Holiday. Although nearly forgotten today, Barry was one of America’s leading playwrights in the first half of this century, largely because of the success of his comedies.

In reviving Hotel Universe, the Center Theater is providing a rare glimpse of Barry’s deeper musings. The production has shortcomings: the actors seem as uncomfortable onstage as their characters are in the universe, and the play, while remarkably original in 1930, often seems quaint today.

Still, Barry was an innovative playwright. His first play, No Thoroughfare, which even Barry recognized as awful, was nevertheless one of the first plays by an American to incorporate the principles of psychoanalysis. The characters in Hotel Universe also engage in spontaneous psychodramas–re-created events from their past that expose the source of their neurotic difficulties. The play was praised by critics when it opened in 1930, and though it had only 81 performances on Broadway–well short of the 100 considered the minimum for success–it did enhance Barry’s reputation.

The suffering and desperation of the characters in Hotel Universe reveal the author’s own frantic struggle to find meaning. Barry was a Catholic existentialist, if that is not a contradiction in terms. He believed that each person is responsible for finding meaning in life, but he also believed that God provided an ultimate meaning that people have to discover. So while he recognized the meaninglessness of life, he was consoled somewhat by his belief that life had a meaning, even if it remained obscure. He once told Katharine Hepburn, the star of the stage and film versions of The Philadelphia Story, that he wouldn’t be able to get up if he didn’t believe in some sort of God at work somewhere.

Not surprisingly, a God surrogate makes an appearance in Hotel Universe to provide guidance for the wandering fools. He appears as Ann’s father, Stephen Field, a wise, kind old man who owns the house where the guests are staying. According to rumor, the house–formerly a hotel known as the Hotel de l’Univers–has magical powers. “The idea seemed to be that people began to resemble other people, and the place itself other places,” Tom reports to the others. “And time went sort of funny. Their pasts kept cropping up.”

That is the gimmick, the deus ex machina, that allows the psychodramas to occur. First Tom and Pat become little boys again. Tom thinks he has leprosy like Father Damien, a Catholic priest who contracted the disease while working in a leper colony. Norman, who is Jewish, steps back into time with them and is promptly accused of being a Christ killer. Ann plays the role of Pat’s mother and coaxes out of him the grief and the guilt he feels over a lost love. Later, the two of them engage in another flashback and return to Westbury Road, where they met and fell in love with each other years earlier.

But it is Stephen who triggers the most intense psychodramas. Like a good psychoanalyst, he takes Tom back to the moment he confessed his lack of faith to Father Francis. “I don’t believe anymore,” he cries. “Nothing’s got any meaning for me.” Stephen, like an Old Testament deity, counsels him: “There are many men who would go to the ends of the earth for God . . . and cannot get through their own gardens.” In other words, stop whining and work out your own petty problems.

Stephen also takes Lily back to an episode when her alcoholic father forced her to drink with him. She plays Cordelia to her father’s King Lear, and when she returns to the present she has magically overcome her fear of that role.

Barry seems to be suggesting that resolving neurotic conflict opens the way to meaning in life–a view held by many humanistic psychotherapists. Being Catholic, Barry has Stephen die, making the old man a Christ figure who gives his life so others may live–but this harmless bit of imagery doesn’t seriously undercut the force of the play.

Neither does the Center Theater’s production. Rob Hamilton’s set is handsome and versatile. Dale Calandra’s direction is rather stiff and melodramatic, but that seems to coincide with Barry’s intent. And some of the actors seem to have a firm grasp of the characters they portray: Gus Buktenica sustains a kind but lordly presence as Stephen; Kathy Scambiatterra deftly adopts three distinct personalities in the course of her performance as Ann; and Sheryl Nieman, as Lily, conveys the discomfort of a woman at odds with herself. The rest of the cast members wander forlornly through the play like humans in a godless universe–unsure of what to do or how to be, and utterly confused about the meaning of it all.