New play offers a flight of imagined history in a hotel room

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NEW YORK — A play that imagines what it might have been like had Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein, Joe DiMaggio and Sen. Joe McCarthy met in a hotel room in 1953 will make its New York debut next month — in a hotel room.

The innovative theater company Defibrillator, based in Britain, will present Terry Johnson's "Insignificance" in a suite at the five-star Langham Place in midtown Manhattan. Previews begin Feb. 19.

"It's a really exciting way to create theater," said Defibrillator artistic director James Hillier, who will direct the play in New York. "When it comes to storytelling, you can tell stories in lots and lots of different places."

The play is the latest in a wave of immersive or site-specific theater in New York, including "Sleep No More," a mask-filled, genre-bending show that mixes film noir and "Macbeth," as well as the show "Queen of the Night," a nightclub-opera-circus at the Paramount Hotel in Times Square.

"The opportunities have opened up now and you don't have to be in a more formal theatrical environment that's set up specifically just to do that role," Hillier said. "I think it just broadens the horizon and shows that theater is a very broad church."

"Insignificance," which premiered in 1982 at the Royal Court in London, was made into a 1985 film by director Nicolas Roeg, starring Michael Emil, Theresa Russell, Gary Busey and Tony Curtis. It never had a professional New York premiere.

"He's got a brilliantly British take on these very American people, which I think offers a humorous, sometimes quite wry take on America and its position at the heights of its power," said Hillier.

Johnson also wrote and directed Broadway's "The Graduate" and won a Tony Award directing "La Cage aux Folles" with Kelsey Grammer. He also directed "End of the Rainbow" with Tracie Bennett.

The latest cast of "Insignificance" at the hotel will star Max Baker, Anthony Comis, Susannah Hoffman and Michael Pemberton. Tickets range from $49 to $125.

Audiences — as many as 60 people might be accommodated per showing — will check in at a box office in the lobby on Fifth Avenue and then be taken to the fifth floor and into a spacious hotel room designed to evoke 1953. Nearby will be a room converted into a bar offering drinks and entertainment of the era.

"Already, you're having a really exciting experience. Already, you're out of your comfort zone. You're excited," said Hillier. "What I really love is that feeling you had when you were on a school trip when you were a kid. You all got on a bus at the same time and you get taken the Natural History Museum? It's like, 'Wow, this is great!'"

Defibrillator, established in 2011, focuses on narrative-driven theater but tries to make the experience richer with immersive elements. It has done shows like this before, presenting "The Hotel Plays" by Tennessee Williams in 2012 at the Grange Hotel and in 2014 at The Langham hotel in London.

"We want the experience to be enriched. So, because they've had a taste of what life was like in the 1950s when they walk into that room, they feel a little bit more how those characters feel." Hillier said. "They empathize with them a little bit more than they would if they just walked in cold off the street into a traditional theater."


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