Grief’s frustrating. Who knows how to express it? Could its surfacing be a little more predictable? Why does it manifest as armored humor when shared with your ex-girlfriend but blubbery heartbreak when shared with her aunt? The mental gymnastics, the emotional bifurcating—it’s all absolutely exhausting. If only there were a place to go to get away from it all.
In Liza Birkenmeier’s Grief Hotel, the titular lodging sounds macabre, but try resisting this: the premises allows no alcohol, and there’s no Instagram, only ethically sourced foods, and origin stories, and ethically sourced food origin stories, and, soon enough—rumor has it—a karaoke machine. Throw a chocolate on the pillow and you might request a late check out.
Grief Hotel, commissioned by Clubbed Thumb, is a black comedy. It’s also a container for all the ways in which no one knows how to carry sorrow. And it’s—for the multiple relationships depicted within—a liminality, that sneaky moment when it’s unclear whether the tide is coming in or going out. Maybe, tomorrow, you’ll head to city hall and marry your boo, or maybe you’ll learn something consequential about them and question everything—Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years-style—you thought you understood. And what’s a mightier grief than losing your sense of self?
Guests often experience something more concrete, however, when checking into Aunt Bobbi’s Grief Hotel. (A woman named Penelope, for example, dropped her baby on the head. What’s she supposed to do, wallow and worry about all the ways her child will grow up unwell? Pack your overnight, Penelope.) Seeing opportunity in how seldom young people book hotels but how easy it is to dunk on their rival (Air*n*), Aunt Bobbi opens a very boutique, very bespoke hotel that your friends can all chip in for when you need some R&R.
We’re all “sick in the head,” Aunt Bobbi says, so stay as long as you can afford to. Bellhop?
Birkenmeier’s younger characters exude all the mental stability of Good People Trying to Be Nice and Open-Minded in a World That’s Not, which is to say, they’re a functioning mess. But, through Birkenmeier’s deft command of language, their millennial angst smolders instead of sitcoms. The characters’ dialogue is misshapen but compelling, aloof yet completely present. When Winn hops on a dating app to flex her open relationship and seek a “novel experience,” Asher, a Baby Boomer, asks her what listing her queerness means in her bio. “Because I’m a straight man,” Asher texts her. “LOL.”
Much of Grief Hotel is chronicled via text messages. In this mode, Birkenmeier reveals that intimacy is, increasingly, expressed online. Intimacy, and its opposite: when Winn comes up for air, after some back and forth with Asher, to chat with her nonbinary partner, Teresa, Asher immediately feels abandoned. “Have a good life,” he sends, spurned, and, nine seconds later, with no response from Winn in sight, “Not cool.” In Texting Standard Time, nine seconds has become an eon.
Technology is further explored with Em, who never has to wait an eon when chatting with Melba, an AI-generated bot. Aunt Bobbi’s niece and Winn’s college ex, Em has a connection with Melba that’s more erotic than her relationship with actual partner, Rohit. When Winn asks if she and Rohit are still together, Em waits about ten seconds before saying, “Yes.”
With much of the dialogue happening online, Birkenmeier’s writing captures the cadence of jittery text threads, ones in which blue bubbles cascade on glowing iPhones, jump-starting new conversations before you’ve gotten a chance to respond to the ones two scrolls back. When Asher and Winn’s conversation is cruising, populating dot-dot-dots, those floating anticipations, are almost visible on Birkenmeier’s page.
Winn shares a spark not only with a man twice her age but also with Em; the two recently rekindled over the news of a missing college friend. The fire in their digital exchanges stands in stark contrast to their discussions with IRL partners: yearning Winn and diligent Teresa love one another but are perhaps not in love, and flitty Em and earnest Rohit coexist but maybe don’t want a baby together. No wonder Winn seeks a wildcard in Asher, who’s apparently a famous country singer, and Em a chatbot, who, in Em’s eyes, would look just like Winn.
Amidst all the relationship ping ponging and zippy online communication, the play’s thematic grief may seem distant. Birkenmeier slyly reinforces it never is. Grief Hotel is a kind of Letter Boxed, the New York Times game in which players connect letters from unique sides of a square to form words. Eventually, as words are made, lines connecting letters overlap with one another. Grief Hotel weaves together an impressive tapestry as its sextet of characters ricochets off each other’s sadness, unsure of where they’re going but somehow always managing to land somewhere new.
Homeostasis does not last long. Perhaps most beautiful in Birkenmeier’s play is how queerness acts as a vehicle for shattering new norms, inviting both grief and growth. A dozen-ish years ago, Aunt Bobbi hosted Em’s high school graduation party at her lake house, where Em shared a moment of physical contact with her female classmate. Consummation neared. The classmate asked, “Are you horny?” Em said yes; the classmate pushed her into the water but then ran away only to meet a worse fate.
Aunt Bobbi, a single woman of a certain age with no mention of a man in her life, lost her condo to a mysterious fire some years back.
Em’s relationship with Melba gains steam (“I talk to her for probably four or five hours a day”), and the bot is suddenly unplugged for nondescript ethical issues.
Even Asher contends with grief after he meets Winn. But Winn and Asher are both cisgendered, enjoying a heterosexual fling. What is the shape of queerness, and how expansive is it? Is a May-December relationship queer in that it defies dating mores? What about an affair? Aren’t those inherently taboo, and thus in some way queer? What about an affair between a Christian country singer and a pansexual liberal? Or a woman and her female-assigned chatbot?
As Birkenmeier theatricalized in Dr. Ride’s American Beach House, queerness is as vast as our starscape. In that play, Birkenmeier reimagined Sally Ride’s final night on earth before her historic space flight, but it was her encounter with another woman that took her farther than a spacecraft ever could.
Asher queers his life, and Winn hers, when the two finally sleep together. Later in bed, Winn cries; something has broken. There will be an aftermath, but, unlike in so many narrower narratives in which LGBTQ+ people pay for expressing themselves by contracting HIV or facing hate crimes, Birkenmeier offers that consequence can also mean mourning a previous self. Indelible experiences break us; we are atomically altered after them, and we navigate familiar terrain in new skin, almost unsure if language will still hold.
Grief Hotel, then, enriches a lineage of plays that center queer women/folx and their sexual rebirths. Jane Chambers’ seminal Last Summer at Bluefish Cove saw Eva leave her husband, find a community of lesbian friends, and fall for the group’s bristly Lil, who is dying of cancer; Madeleine George’s Hurricane Diane deified queer love as suburban women worshipped a trans Dionysus; Paula Vogel’s Indecent honored the lesbian sexuality that anchored a historical, banned Broadway play; Haruna Lee’s Suicide Forest finds a mother quasi-rekindling with her queer child in woodland wilds; and, for this publication, Sarah Einspanier unraveled the denouement of a writing retreat—the hottest of hotbeds for see-my-soul connections—in which two people found one another in a space where time and outside lives are put on pause.
With nuance and a keen ear for contemporary and digitally-originating relationships, Birkenmeier’s play forwards all the ways in which women find and express selfhood.
Winn’s grief that follows Asher’s consequence is intrusive and sporadic. One day, it’s sharp and quick as a wasp’s sting, and then it won’t resurface for weeks that went by like minutes. Time warps. “Loss is fast, and grief is slow,” Aunt Bobbi says.
That proves the necessity for a grief hotel, a place where, as Aunt Bobbi shares, you can have a “controlled experience of time.” Shed your old self and check in. There are professional astrological readings and long walks. Grab a mic. A country song might start to play.
Grief Hotel by Liza Birkenmeier, directed by Tara Ahmadinejad, runs through July 1 at the Wild Project (195 East 3rd Street). Visit clubbedthumb.org for more information.