By Mary Houlihan | For the Sun-Times
It seems that everyone — playwright, director, actors — involved with the new play “The Upstairs Concierge” isin agreement on one fact: Staging a farce is a challenge. Words used to describe this brand of comedy run along the lines of “absurd,” “exaggerated” and “physical”; staging such a play is not a task for the weak of heart.
Playwright Kristoffer Diaz found that out pretty quickly in the early stages of writing. Before the Goodman Theatre commissioned the play, he tried hacking away at it several times before coming to the realization that it needed “that sense of ensemble” in order to flesh out who he was writing the piece for. In other words, he was in need of some collaboration.
‘THE UPSTAIRS CONCIERGE’
When: Through April 26
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
Info: (312) 443-3800; goodmantheatre.org
“It’s the kind of play you can’t really create by yourself sitting at home in front of the computer,” Diaz says. “You have to know how it’s going to live in the bodies of the actors, write some of it specifically for the actors and see it up on its feet and if it works.”
“The Upstairs Concierge,” making its world premiere at the Goodman under the direction of KJ Sanchez, shines a spotlight on society and its obsession with fame. The setting is the Hotelman Arms (pronounced like Bottleman), a new high-class boutique hotel catering to celebrity clients. It’s here that the concierge Ella (Tawny Newsome) learns there is much more to the job than she thinks. There are mistaken identities and slamming doors aplenty.
The guests Ella and two fumbling bellhops (Gabriel Ruiz, John Stokvis) must cater to are a demanding lot. There is BB (Jose Antonio Garcia), a celebrity blogger loosely based on Perez Hilton; Shivery Delicious (Sandra Delgado), a best-selling novelist in the “Twilight”/”Fifty Shades of Gray” school of great literature, and Rebecca Oaxaca (Alejandra Escalante), an Internet celebrity whose bunting video has gone viral, attracting the attention of competing baseball scouts (Travis Turner, Theo Allyn) who want to make her the first woman in the big leagues. Hovering around it all are the hotel owners (Cedric Young, Mia Park).
“Kris is so good at balancing smart cultural commentary with so much joy and sense of play,” Sanchez says. “There are a lot of smart things here, but in no way does any of it seem like medicine or preaching.”
Diaz, who is best known to Chicago audiences for “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” (Victory Gardens Theater) and “Welcome to Arroyo’s” (American Theatre Company), has gotten to know many Chicago actors of color; he considers them an “untapped asset.” With “Upstairs Concierge,” he wanted to create a modern farce in the vein of Michael Frayn’s classic “Noises Off” but also wanted “to write a big silly comedy for actors who don’t really get to do big silly comedies.”
Newsome, who is on stage the entire time and describes her character as “unapologetically enthusiastic,” honed her comedic skills at the Second City, where she performed for nearly five years. It was here she learned how to judge if something is working, which “comes in handy on new works of all kinds,” she says, adding, “Kris was open to ideas from everyone. You can’t really do comedy in a vacuum.”
Diaz calls Newsome a “comedic powerhouse” and admits he wrote Ella with her in mind.
“As an actor Tawny is incredibly present and comes up with great jokes and punch lines on the go,” Diaz notes. “But, ultimately, she’s able to stay calm in the middle of this hurricane of craziness that is going on around her. I don’t think you can build a successful farce without somebody like that at its core.”
Diaz is a bit dazed by the fact that his play is running at the Goodman next door to an August Wilson classic (Two Trains Running”). Thinking back to his days just starting out, he says Wilson was a “massive influence.”
“The influence was not so much his work but the way he approached his work,” Diaz recalls. “The understanding that that there are a lot of different influences you have as a writer of color — your own background plus the dramatic traditions in which you work — and there is an obligation to do good work and be rigorous about it and devote yourself to big projects. To be reminded of that now is beyond humbling and beyond inspiring.”