Up in the Old Hotel

The delights of Refraction Arts Project's 'Up in the Old Hotel' are many, but the creators seem to assume that you already know a lot about 'New Yorker' writer Joseph Mitchell

Arts Review

Up in the Old Hotel

Blue Theater, through Nov. 20

Running Time: 2 hrs, 15 min

For close to 60 years, Joseph Mitchell was employed by The New Yorker magazine, writing stories about the fringe residents and eccentrics of the Big Apple, most notably about one Joe Gould, a Harvard-educated ne'er-do-well who translated poetry into the language of seagulls and claimed to be writing a one-million-word oral history of the world. Shortly after Gould's death, Mitchell published "Joe Gould's Secret," in which he revealed that Gould's "oral history" was a sham. That was in 1964. From then until his own demise in 1996, Mitchell arrived each day at the The New Yorker offices and left each night, but if he ever wrote anything else, no one ever saw it.

You can glean pretty much all of the information noted above if you visit the Blue Theater for Refraction Arts Project's Up in the Old Hotel (also the title of Mitchell's last published work), but you better be paying attention. The script is credited to five writers – among them, RAP Artistic Director Ron Berry, who also directs – and while it's clear from whence they drew their inspiration, the resulting play isn't so much a story about Mitchell and his writings as it is a theatrical collage. Scenes often begin out of the blue and not necessarily in chronological order, and while most take us on a definite journey, not a lot of time is spent informing us about who and what we're watching. It appears that we're either supposed to know or to catch up.

Or perhaps neither. The show seems intended to be impressionistic. Half of Leilah Stewart's set is a series of four doors, equipped with numerous hatches and framed with dozens of stacked suitcases. The other half is a wall papered with dozens of sheets of handwritten scrawl. The stage is otherwise empty except for a desk and chairs and a huge pile of yet more scrawly, scribbled-up paper, which ends up surprisingly scattered for the length of the evening. Berry has his actors use the space inventively. Often it's like a classic farce or a midcentury screwball comedy, with bearded ladies, waiters, bums, street preachers, crotchety old men, and nude portraits parading on and off, in and around and about. In a blatant case of art imitating life, Berry has cast Chronicle Arts Editor Robert Faires as Mitchell, who does little more than listen for the bulk of the play, seemingly caught up, as we are, in the swirl of events.

While the production breathes quality, including the performances, most of which are big, broad, and theatrical – most notably Travis Dean as the manic and maniacally inspired Gould – that the writers seem to have assumed that everyone would know who all these people are is bothersome. Even director Berry seems to assume foreknowledge on the part of the viewer, as scenes often begin so quickly that the audience is easily lost in trying to figure it all out. Make no mistake, the delights of the production are numerous, but if you want to enjoy it fully, be forewarned that you're going to have to work at it more than a little bit as well.

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Blue Theater, Refraction Arts Project, Up in the Old Hotel, Joseph Mitchell, The New Yorker, Joe Gould, Joe Gould's Secret, Ron Berry, Leilah Stewart, Robert Faires, Travis Dean

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