Plaza Suite, this is not.
In fact, it is about as different as a play can be that shares the same premise: short vignettes about the different people who occupy the same room in, as one character puts it, “a place people are meant to leave.” Rather than a swanky city hotel, the Crystal Creek Motel is run-down, seedy, off the beaten track, and not too clean. Rather than privileged people with privileged problems, the guests are diverse and often desperate. They range from couples (of all persuasions) sharing quick passion, to lonely travelers wrestling with their own demons and sorrows, all the way to terrified victims of human trafficking. And yet, the stories are frequently funny and touching, and almost all end with at least a hint of hope.
The entire show is a creative collaboration among seven directors and one diverse cast of actors. Together, on a deceptively simple-looking, one-room set designed by Jos. B. Musumeci, Jr., all these wildly talented people have created 12 playlets, one for each month of the year 2003. The time of this “period piece” is very specifically marked by the precisely wild costumes by Brittany Graham, the soundtrack of contemporaneous top-40 hits (sound design by Neil McFadden) and the between-scene projections of memes, movies, and politics by Paul Deziel. In the course of the scenes they create, words are the least of their tools; they also make inventive use of music, sound, projections, masks, and dance to convey mood and the inner lives of the characters. This wild mix proves tremendously effective.
It does take a bit of getting used to, and the production leads the audience by the hand slowly into the sometimes surreal world it is creating. (Like many good short stories, many of these short plays have twists, so here is an attempt to highlight them without spoilers.)
“January” (directed by Dan Mori) gives us Natalie Cutcher as an exhausted vacuum cleaner seller who uses music to manage her crippling anxiety.
“February” (also Dan Mori) presents an extremely funny, exhaustingly athletic and ultimately sweet tale of a man (adorable Quincy Vicks) who hires a male escort (hunky and humorous James Finley) to indulge his extremely unusual fantasy.
“March” (directed by Kelly Colburn) is a different piece altogether – a searing portrait of a drug addict (mind-blowing Madeline Key) as she spends the night wrestling with her demons and avoiding the concerned phone calls of her family. The scene uses multiple sudden blackouts, music and recorded messages to produce a cinematic fast-cut passage of time. Key’s ability to navigate these fast changes in the dark while conveying the wrenching reality of her situation is breathtaking.
“April” is where the full innovative vocabulary of the work first comes into full force. Directed and choreographed by Robert Bowen Smith, it shows a woman (Momo Nakamura) waiting to meet up with her former lover. Through ethereal projections on the walls, and then two more actors (Linda Bard and Quincy Vicks–as lyrical here as he was dorky before) appearing magically and eerily on stage, her memories of past trysts come back to her. The scene becomes a mesmerizing, dreamlike pas de trois as she dances with her past.
“May” (directed by Tonia Sina and Jason Schlafstein) is a much more energetic and funny scene in which a man (a now endearingly awkward James Finley) and a woman (sizzling and supercilious Natalie Cutcher) meet for a time-crunch lunchtime quickie. Their encounter is explicit and unsatisfying — until they manage to fix it in a way we all wish we could.
“June” (directed and choreographed by Robert Bowen Smith) is the most disturbing of the vignettes after the drug-drenched “March.” Two frightened, trafficked girls are left in the motel room by their kidnapper, and one tries to comfort the other by telling her a tale in Spanish about a mythical coyote. The entire ensemble appears in animal masks to illustrate the tale. The use of masks, choreography and lights and shadows is effective, but the story seems to go on too long, and the ending is ambiguous.
After the intermission, “July” (directed by Tonia Sina and Lee Liebeskind) also features the ensemble in a jumbled, chaotic and ultimately joyful piece about a young man who yearns to make his mark and is ultimately encouraged by the spirits of others who were there in the room before him.
“August” (directed by Kelly Colburn) is the only piece in the whole work that strikes a sour note. It features a stentorious narrator, which seems out of keeping with the other, mostly wordless scenes. It is clearly meant as an over-the-top horror-comedy, and the actors (Linda Bard and Paz Lopez) do supply some laughs, but when things get grisly, it is hard to recall why we are laughing. Strangely enough, for a supposedly funny piece, it is the only one of the night that contains no glimmer of hope.
“September” (directed by Aria Velz) is perhaps the most traditional, almost Plaza Suite-like scene of the evening. In bringing four siblings (Finley, Halsey, Key, and Nakamura) together to vie for their grandmother’s legacy, it seems to have come from the bottom drawer of an old sketch-comedy show. In turns silly, contrived and sappy, it seems strangely out of tune with the genuine emotion and real human problems that mark the rest of the scenes.
“October” (directed by Aria Velz, written with KJ Moran) returns to the evening’s themes of genuine emotion and joy in its depiction of a lesbian couple (Linda Bard and Madeline Key) struggling with the choice of staying in the closet or coming out as a married couple in pre-marriage-equality America. It adds to the artistic repertoire of the evening a gorgeous cello solo by Bard.
“November” (directed by Lee Liebeskind) makes the most stunning use in the show of the expressive language of dance. In depicting a distraught man (the amazingly versatile James Finley) mourning the loss of his brother (Jordan Clark Halsey), choreographer Tiffanie Horner creates a pas de deux that exquisitely captures the depths of grief and love.
“December” (directed by Lee Liebeskind, written with Nerissa Hart) brings the whole show full-circle. Set on New Year’s Eve, 2003, it features the entire ensemble at a party, clearly enjoying themselves, showing hints of relationships past and future. Breaks in the narrative through lighting and projections show that all is not well with the hostess, though. Her dilemma and how she resolves it mesh very cleverly with the through-story that has linked the entire evening, that of the cleaning crew (Julieta Gozalo and Erin Denman) who have been cleaning up (sort of) after all the guests’ shenanigans and dealing with their own issues through the entire year. Making these thankless workers behind the scenes the ultimate heroes of the piece is emblematic of the grit, heart, and hope that infuses the entire show.
All in all, Crystal Creek Motel is an amazing piece of theater, combining words, music, projection, stagecraft, dance and most of all first-rate, versatile, physical acting into a breathtaking whole. Check in soon. I promise you will enjoy your stay.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hrs 30 minutes, with one intermission.
Crystal Creek Motel, presented by Flying V Theatre, plays through Saturday, November 2, 2019, at The Silver Spring Black Box Theater, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8 pm, Saturday Matinees at 2 pm, Sunday Matinees at 4 pm, Industry nights Monday 10/21 and 10/28 at 8 pm. Purchase tickets online.
Note: Crystal Creek Motel contains themes that may be upsetting for some viewers or unsuitable for children, including sex, drug use, suicidal ideation, and human trafficking.