‘Zoo Motel’ Review: Got the Key. Where’s the Minibar?

If the livestreamed show “ Zoo Motel ” were happening in person instead of on our computer screens, we would probably get a neat little ...


If the livestreamed show “Zoo Motel” were happening in person instead of on our computer screens, we would probably get a neat little packet of items upon arrival at the theater.

In this isolated world of virtual performance, that packet comes instead as a preshow email attachment. It’s up to us to print the items out: a “room key” and a welcome brochure, an evacuation map, a sheet of motel stationery — that sort of thing. The midcentury design is cool, which makes it a fun assignment. Also, we’re told to rustle up a deck of playing cards.

It’s clever, getting the audience involved in the performance before it begins; it’s more active than simply being sent stuff, as happens with other livestream theater pieces like “The Present.” And if we look closely at the map, the kind that shows how to escape the building in an emergency, it piques our curiosity. There seems to be no exit.

Shades of Sartre? Perhaps — though I don’t think “Zoo Motel” means to remind us that hell is other people. I’m sorry to report, then, that it does. Well, purgatory anyway.

Created by Thaddeus Phillips of the collective Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental, and performed by him over Zoom from his studio in Cajicá, Colombia, near Bogotá, this is pandemic theater in substance as well as form. It’s about being trapped in our unsettling limbo, cut off from one another, longing for a return to the ordinary.

Phillips, the director of the excellent “Red-Eye to Havre de Grace” in 2014 at New York Theater Workshop, and the star of “17 Border Crossings” there last year, here plays a man staying in one of a motel’s 22 rooms. We audience members — who occasionally are asked to unmute ourselves (if we want) and pipe up in response to his questions — are the other motel guests.

Directed by Tatiana Mallarino and presented by Lucidity Suitcase and Miami Light Project, “Zoo Motel” has thought deeply and coherently about its surreally beautiful, color-saturated design (by Steven Dufala) but much less clearly about what it wants to say, and how.

Baggy and meandering, with a strangely uncharismatic character at its center, this show communicates its fragmentary ideas — about connection and alienation, loss and survival — in a hodgepodge of styles: a card trick here, an imaginary car trip there. One of the magic tricks (by Steve Cuiffo) may be the most eloquent moment: Phillips makes an American passport disappear.

But at the performance I saw, there were interactive elements that didn’t work, one because of a problem that I am told has since been fixed: That night’s audience had inadvertently been sent a slightly different map than Phillips had. When people tried to say so, he seemed not to want to hear it. Perplexed, he just barreled right on.

There was a card trick — the reason we were asked to bring a deck — that produced a nice moment of audience unity. But another, which Phillips performed while telling a tedious Las Vegas story, was underwhelming despite its complexity. Had I actually been in his motel room listening to him go on like that, I’d have made an excuse to flee back to my own.

Obviously that’s not the intention. Neither, I think, is the way this flailing show seems to end at least a couple of times before it actually does. It has the feel of an experiment, but one that needed more time to evolve past the self-indulgent stage.

Zoo Motel
Through Oct. 25; zoomotel.org. Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes.

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Newsrust: ‘Zoo Motel’ Review: Got the Key. Where’s the Minibar?
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