Absurdist theater is like the naturalistic play’s overachieving older sibling. Traditional theater attempts to describe the chaos of the human condition, but absurdist works dare to enact it. Liza Birkenmeier’s “Grief Hotel” is one of those enactors, a strange, snack-sized play that closes out Clubbed Thumb’s 2023 Summerworks series — a proud incubator for strange plays.
Birkenmeier’s deft writing (in previous works like “Dr. Ride’s American Beach House”) and her affinity for morbid humor return here, and despite its title, “Grief Hotel” doesn’t simply dwell on the grim; it’s actually a dark comedy. And while all of the amusing oddness successfully depicts the madness of grief and the complexities of millennial relationships, it does so to the detriment of the play’s message and the production’s intrigue.
Aunt Bobbi (Susan Blommaert) is the straight-shooting mastermind behind the grief hotel idea — a bespoke getaway for people who have experienced a tragedy: an illness, a breakup, a manslaughter charge. She’s trying to present her concept to the audience, but Birkenmeier interrupts Bobbi’s marketing pitch with a series of conversations among younger characters who are grappling with their own sense of loss: Em (Nadine Malouf), Winn (Ana Nogueira), Rohit (Naren Weiss), Teresa (Susannah Perkins) and Asher (Bruce McKenzie).
Although some characters are dealing with death head-on, “Grief Hotel” lingers more on the impermanence of relationships than it does the impermanence of life. Just try to keep track of this: Em and Winn were college girlfriends. But now Em is in a relationship with an unexciting man named Rohit. Rohit is slightly attracted to Teresa. But Teresa, who is nonbinary, is already in a romantic partnership with Winn. Winn craves a novel experience and strikes up a sexual fling with Asher, a straight, married man. Em reserves most of her lust for an A.I. chatbot named Melba. In Em’s mind, the bot looks exactly like Winn.
On the surface, this salacious cross-pollination might sound entertaining, but without enough exploration of these people or enough time to invest in the mess of their affairs, “Grief Hotel” feels more like a vague social experiment about impulse and desire than a provocative, character-driven piece of theater.
Vagueness seems to be its intention. The scenic design collective called dots cloaks the set with the drab, midcentury décor of a three-star motel. And Tara Ahmadinejad’s languid direction fails to pump the production with much-needed blood. The overall lack of unifying energy surely parallels our fractured, new age of digital dating (a good chunk of Birkenmeier’s script is composed of text messages read aloud), but I found it exhausting IRL.
At times, I wondered if the hotel was a purgatory for all of these partnerships — the anxiety-inducing, interstitial space where relationships go to die or thrive. We never land on this, or any, conclusion, but toward the play’s end, Bobbi offers a remedy to the group’s literal and metaphorical mourning: gratitude. Gratitude for the memories shared with past loves and the ones yet to be made with future ones. This — more than time, more than medication — begins to heal all wounds. And regardless of the production’s faults, I was grateful for the reminder.
Grief Hotel Through July 1 at the Wild Project, Manhattan; thewildproject.com. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes.
This review is supported by Critical Minded, an initiative to invest in the work of cultural critics from historically underrepresented backgrounds.