Celebrity worship requires paying daily homage at the altar of the ludicrous and bizarre. Obsessed with cellulite, implants gone wrong, cooches drunkenly flashed from limos, it’s an extreme industry that devours failures and bad behavior—and the weirder its creations rise, the harder they fall.
But nobody revels in the mundane doings of D-list celebrities—and that’s a big part of why Kristoffer Diaz‘s milquetoast new farce, The Upstairs Concierge, fails. Commissioned back in 2010 by the Goodman and Teatro Vista (where Diaz is a resident playwright), the play pokes fun at fame in an age where self-aggrandizing Instagram celebs are embraced with the same fervor as stars of the silver screen. Its conceit: A new hotel “concept” has opened in Chicago, one with doors minus locks on the second floor to give its famous guests unlimited access to one another. The concierge of the title, hired to tend to their every demand, is also installed there—as indicated by her bed, plopped center stage, where it pulls a massive amount of focus for how little it’s actually used.
And here’s where the trouble begins. It’s hard to believe someone could be miscast in a role that’s evidently written for her, but that’s certainly the case with Tawny Newsome as concierge Ella Elizondo. A frequent performer on the Second City main stage, Newsome’s funny in places where the script’s improv influences come through, but she’s a terrible straight man, overblown where she should be subtle and vice versa. Like several of the show’s other decent actors caught in bad parts, Newsome’s partly a victim of poor directing by KJ Sanchez, who seems to forget that good farce means characters who actually believe their circumstances, no matter how extraordinary.
Unlike playwright David Adjmi’s imaginatively modernized Marie Antoinette (currently running at Steppenwolf), The Upstairs Concierge seems five years behind when it comes to capturing anything relevant about celebrity culture. Diaz had great success with his 2009 work The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, which was nominated for a Pulitzer, and just last week he was named a Guggenheim fellow, but his “‘brities,” as they’re termed here, lack punch and feel lazily written. Even the central character, BB, a parody of celebrity aficionado Perez Hilton, is stuck with generic dialogue, as if Diaz couldn’t bear to dip so much as a toe into the glorious font of celebrity sewage that is Hilton’s website.
At one point a young Internet celebrity tells Ella, “I don’t decide the things that I do. I follow what I’m given, and I go wherever that takes me.” This might as well be the motto of The Upstairs Concierge, which feels simultaneously overworkshopped and underdeveloped, filled with too many bits of random improv that lead nowhere.
That said, this production crashes with such gusto and enthusiasm it provides its own perverse breed of entertainment. Diaz really delivers on the play’s finale—a completely mimed sequence that climaxes in a sex-crazed frenzy so nonsensical it borders on Dada.
Could be Dadaists will love this production. At the very least, teenage girls might—the night I saw the show a pack of them went crazy at every “people stripping naked” scene, of which there are plenty.
But theater doesn’t exist for surrealists and adolescents alone, and those craving focus, reliable plotting, and well-timed humor would do well to stay home. And cozy up to perezhilton.com for a proper celebrity surf. v