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Review: 'Grand Motel' at Unknown Theater

February 26, 2009 |  5:00 pm

Grand_motel_press_photos_013 A run-down, male-only nudist motel in hot, dusty Palm Springs doesn’t immediately spring to mind as the destination of choice for a nervous breakdown. But writer-director Michael Sargent makes a fairly credible case for it in "Grand Motel," his sharply written if somewhat indulgent new comedy at Hollywood's Unknown Theater.

A superb Dennis Christopher brings flamboyant charm and petulance to Cornelius Coffin, a caustic, over-the-hill gay Southern playwright clearly conceived as a latter-day Tennessee Williams, with all the self-destructive excess that goes with the association. Even as he claims to live a quiet life of selfless artistic servitude, Coffin staggers in a boozing, pill-popping haze around the motel courtyard (realized in breathtaking detail by scenic designer Chris Covics, whose David Hockney-meets-Wal-Mart set includes a swimming pool, flanking rooms, shabby lounge chairs, and even a sparse lawn with working sprinklers).

Among the naked men sunbathing in this seedy tableau, Coffin seeks escape from the frenzy surrounding the East Coast opening of his latest play. He finds an unlikely kindred spirit in Chad (Andy Hopper), a buff, troubled former model; amid reciprocal confessions they agree on a suicide pact steeped -- like everything in Coffin's world -- in over-the-top histrionics. Stalking Coffin's every move is  a sycophantic local male escort (Nick Soper) and the motel's co-owners (Craig Johnson, Erik Hanson), who see in their famous guest a solution to their financial difficulties.

Crashing the boy's club, Coffin's longtime friend and artistic muse, Maria St. Juiced (Shannon Holt), gives him a run for drama queen supremacy. Matching his preening beat for campy beat, Holt never fails to astonish in her ability to milk laughs from the most throwaway lines. 

Sargent's witty, literate script abounds with snappy dialogue befitting a central character whose identity is invested in words. Subtly mirroring Williams' famous heroine Blanche DuBois, Coffin's downward spiral takes some dark turns, unfortunately undermined by a closing reveal that changes the reality we thought we were watching. While his play rises above many of the tropes of the gay-themed genre he pokes fun at, it feels like Sargent gratuitously chose the locale to legitimize the play's extensive nudity rather than the other way around.

-- Philip Brandes

"Grand Motel," Unknown Theater, 1110 Seward St., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 6 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 28. $24 ($18 online). (323) 466-7781 or www.unknowntheater.com. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

Photo: Dennis Christopher. Credit: Chris Covics.

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