The Theater of the First Amendment, a professional troupe based at George Mason University, has been reorganizing of late, and hasn't produced much. Now the company is back, and the simple act of turning an empty stage into a passable Moroccan hotel room is so exciting that they can't help sharing it with the audience. Stagehands bring on a desk and leather chairs, a wall with louvered doors descends from the fly space, a lazy ceiling fan begins to spin, and in less than 20 nifty seconds the TFA is humming again.
The play is "Three Hotels," Jon Robin Baitz's terse account of a good man coming to terms with the bad things he's done, and it's a high-minded indictment of Americans' profiteering in the Third World. Baitz tells the story, which first appeared in the early '90s, in three winding monologues -- the first and third by Kenneth Hoyle, a middle-aged executive who specializes in firing people, and the middle one by his bitter wife, Barbara. Each, of course, takes place in a different hotel -- clean, anonymous, fundamentally lonely places where "nothing sticks," as Hoyle says.
As in John le Carre's "The Constant Gardener," a good hard look at some shady business in Africa sheds light on a couple's relationship. Hoyle's company peddles questionable baby formula to hapless mothers, a dubious but profitable enterprise. Hoyle is too bright not to be aware of the ethical implications, and Kevin Murray exudes nervousness and sublimated guilt from the moment this weasel starts talking. Hoyle sublimates a lot -- his Jewish heritage, his Peace Corps roots -- only these things keep bubbling to the surface. The steady supply of martinis he consumes adds to the general atmosphere of circumvention and stress.
If Hoyle is anguished, his wife is furious. The play is an extreme exercise in he said/she said: The two characters never share the stage, and you never get a visceral sense of where they ever connected emotionally or intellectually. That may be in part because husband and wife are both grieving for a son whose demise, as Baitz conceives it, is almost clinically ironic, and their own sharp breakup is happening before our eyes.
But it is also because of Baitz's arch style. The monologues have a knowing, brittle quality; they are infused with a worldly cynicism that's awfully seductive, yet can seem maddeningly detached. That's exactly who Kenneth is, of course: worldly enough to know what's going on but detached enough to shrug and cash his check. Yet the horrific aridity sometimes spills over into the play at large. Though "Three Hotels" reeks of melancholy and regret, it is of the driest variety.
And some of that is because of the performance. Baitz's cosmopolitan writing declares that his characters are mildly exotic; Murray and Mary Lechter deliver more prosaic specimens. (Howard Vincent Kurtz's defiantly bland and unflattering costumes don't help.) Murray's Hoyle isn't a whole lot more wrecked at the end than at the beginning; the character's fall is pretty mild. Lechter doesn't altogether capture the sense that the supremely (and aptly) judgmental Barbara is a woman who's far better than her lot, but she does give the show a moment of substantial heat as she recounts the brutal, ruinously honest speech she delivered to the corporate wives' club.
Though it never quite lands with the authority Baitz clearly reaches for, "Three Hotels" is a smarter-than-average play that feels like a bit of a brainteaser as you watch it (What do these characters really regret?). Director Rick Davis creates a moody, thoughtful atmosphere; Anne Gibson's scenery neatly shifts from Morocco to the Virgin Islands and then Mexico; the acting of Murray and Lechter (married in real life, by the way) is never less than clean and perceptive. For the TFA, it's a characteristically thoughtful and honorable return to action.
Three Hotels, by Jon Robin Baitz. Directed by Rick Davis. Approximately 90 minutes. Through Oct. 2 at the Harris Theater, George Mason University, Fairfax. Call 888-945-2468 or visit www.tickets.com.