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J. Malia Hawley in Room 314
(Photo: © S. Higgins)
The heart sinks as one peruses the program and press materials for the Bottle Factory Theater Company's inaugural production, Room 314. We learn that the play's author, Michael Knowles, is also its director in addition to being a member of the cast -- plus, he's co-founder and co-artistic director of the company! The whole thing screams "vanity production" and sounds like a recipe for disaster. Happily, although the show is ultimately pointless except as an acting exercise, it's nowhere near as awful as one might expect under the circumstances. It turns out that Knowles and the other nine members of the cast display considerable talent.

"How many stories can one hotel room tell?" the ads for the show ask rhetorically. And the press release wonders, "What would it be like to be a fly on the wall of Room 314?" Knowles's clear intent was to concoct the theatrical equivalent of such TV reality shows as The Real World and Big Brother, wherein the behavior of various characters in a particular environment is presented for our voyeuristic delectation. The main problem with both the script and direction of Room 314 is that Knowles has gone overboard in his attempt to recreate real-life interactions.

For one thing, the piece is full of meaningless pauses -- the kind of dead silences that often occur while people are going about their business in an actual hotel room, whether they're unpacking or making a phone call or visiting the WC. These and other, similar actions are presented in real time, and if that sounds boring -- well, it is. At a certain point in the third of the five "stories" that make up Room 314, one of the characters goes into the bathroom to change and ABSOLUTELY NOTHING HAPPENS for about 45 seconds, while the other character simply waits for her to emerge. Note to Michael Knowles: 45 seconds is an eternity on stage, and you just can't do something like this.

In further pursuit of verisimilitude, Knowles has sometimes permitted or encouraged the actors to speak conversationally at a very low volume. Also, long sections of two of the scenes are played in near total darkness. (One of them is a simulated sex act that might cause Frankie and Johnny to blush.) But it's folly to put this kind of stuff on stage without processing it in some way. Knowles must surely realize that the TV "reality" programs he's emulating are constructed -- if not scripted -- to contain dramatic arcs, but he eschews that kind of shaping in Room 314.

Knowles's strength is his ability to write dialogue that accurately replicates everyday speech, a talent that is by no means in huge supply. In this regard, he might be viewed as the polar opposite of Eugene O'Neill. That legendary playwright created compelling characters and placed them in situations ripe for emotional fireworks, then tended to fill their mouths with forced, stagey, excruciating dialogue. Conversely, Michael Knowles's characters sound like real people -- but the author really needs to bone up on conflict, subtext, narrative, and other fundamental aspects of dramaturgy.

Christopher Trunell and Jennifer Smith in Room 314
(Photo: © S. Higgins)
As noted above, an excellent 10-person cast keeps Room 314 interesting. In the first of the stories, "The Morning After," a guy named Nick (Jared Michalski) wakes up in bed with a girl named Stacey (J. Malia Hawley). We eventually learn that she had picked him up the night before at a bachelor party held in a bar. After Nick has roused himself and has peed noisily in the bathroom, he and Stacey engage in believably awkward, post-coital dialogue -- and that's all, folks! In the second story, "The Arrival," David (hunky Christopher Trunell) and Caly (willowy Jennifer Smith) have just arrived in Room 314, where they'll be staying while attending David's brother's wedding. Their conversation is elliptical and strained because they've just broken up -- but they never actually impart that information, and I only know it because I read the press release.

The third story of Room 314, "The Romantic Get Away" [sic], is the most theatrically effective of all if only because the actors make wiser decisions in regard to pacing and volume. Donald Silva and Kate Lunsford are entirely credible as Charlie and Linda, a long-married couple trying to spark their relationship by vacationing without the kids in tow. Unfortunately, the couple is having trouble unwinding, and she's put off by his flatulence. ("You used to love the smell of my farts," says Charlie in one immortal line of dialogue.) The fourth story, "The Interruption," is the most unsatisfactory from a writing standpoint: A disheveled guy named Harry (J. Chambers) has checked into the hotel with the intention of committing suicide, à la Julianne Moore in The Hours, but is interrupted by the arrival of his wife, Gretchen (Amanda Gruss). There is no explanation of how she discovers her husband's intentions or whereabouts, unless I dozed off and missed it. And like the other stories of the play, this one shuffles along to an ending with no resolution.

When Michael Knowles finally appears on stage in the final story, "The Rendezvous," it turns out that he has a million-dollar face -- which may have helped him get away with writing, directing, producing, and acting in the show! More importantly, he displays a charming stage presence and a wonderfully natural acting style that's perfect for the type of script he's written. Knowles plays a salesman named Jack who has come to Room 314 with co-worker Kathy (Anna Lodej) for a tryst. We learn that both of them are married to other people, but that circumstance isn't mined for any sort of dramatic payoff. Oddly, when Kathy initially decides not to consummate the affair, Jack seems barely surprised and only mildly disappointed. (What kind of an acting choice is that?) Fortunately, the charisma of both actors and Lodej's sexy, exotic accent hold our attention throughout the two short scenes that comprise this sequence.

Room 314 is being presented in the brand new Bottle Factory Theater on East 3rd Street, which has been carved out of -- that's right! -- a bottle factory. The venue as a whole is sleek and comfortable but, unfortunately, the performance space has no wings at all. (For this show, the door between the theater and the lobby ingeniously doubles as the door that leads from Room 314 to the hallway of the hotel; no one, by the way, is credited with the production's simple but effective set design.) A surfeit of ingenuity and talent will be required to use the theater effectively in future productions, so here's hoping that Michael Knowles and his colleagues are up to the challenge.

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