LJ Playhouse Meets Lafayette Hotel In A Puzzling Confrontation

Audience members for La Jolla Playhouse The Grift puzzle over chess moves at the Lafayette Hotel. Jim Carmody Photo.

Audience members for La Jolla Playhouse The Grift puzzle over chess moves at the Lafayette Hotel.                Jim Carmody Photo

The best way to see a show is comfortably seated with a printed program, good sightlines and a friend. But theatre artists sometimes have other ideas. And art is why we’re there.

Site-specific shows spread through an interesting space and requiring the audience to troop about can be fun, depending on the guidance skills of the performers. Too often, though, the thing becomes tiresome before it concludes.

Such is the case with Tom Salamon’s The Grift, being presented by the La Jolla Playhouse at the renovated 1940s Lafayette Hotel in El Cajon Boulevard in North Park. A mildly interesting premise staggers under superfluous intricacies at an accelerated pace that allows little room for coherence and none for contemplation.

The story is introduced in a posthumous video of Ben, the lovechild of a long-ago fling at the Lafayette by Bob Hope and Lana Turner, who apparently arranged to have Ben supported by a generous monthly check for his whole life, growing up, living and dying with the hotel staff more or less his family. His deathbed wish – if I have the story straight – is to pull off a major confidence game at the expense of one Chicago Joe, who at some point bilked many a hotel guest (and some staff members) out of much money.

The con will be an elaborate scenario that climaxes in the auction of a painting by Claude Monet, one of Chicago Joe’s obsessions. And, for reasons never made clear to me, the auction must be set up by the solution of several puzzles presented to us, the audience, divided into five arbitrary groups of about 10 customers each and shuffled between sites on a rigid schedule.

Each of the five puzzles takes place in its own space around the hotel – lobby, swimming pool, ballroom, bar, etc. – and the solving of each one results in a discovery of unknown or forgotten links between Ben and current hotel employees descended from the dear, departed stiff who raised him.

These descendants, whose lineage seems as complicated as European court hierarchies, each presides over one of the puzzles, gee-whizzing along with the audience but also making sure, one suspects, that the puzzles actually get more-or-less solved. And within the minutes allotted, allowing for travel-time between puzzle sites.

Does that make sense? Believe me, it’s even more confusing in action.

The old hotel is fun and a lot of it is on display, as paying guests make way for hurrying knots of theatregoers. The puzzles, calling for knowledge of music notation, chess strategy, improv scenes and computer technique among other skills, are about at the level of a good crossword puzzle and the props have some class. Each of the five site leaders, for lack of a better term, assure that everything keeps moving briskly along

(Scott Nickley as a lifeguard and Cris O’Bryon as a bellhop {a guy who helped guests find their room, remember?} seem the most settled into their roles. With five improv repetitions per performance, though, evolution is inevitable. And glibness is a real danger.)

The show, frankly, has too many logistics and not enough logic. An urgent need for success in solving the puzzles is implied but not enforced. And, by the fourth or fifth site, the audience has figured it out: All will fall in place somehow at the climactic auction scene.

Does it? To answer in the spirit of the show: Sort of. I guess. What next?


Continues at 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, at 6 and 8:30 p.m. Fridays and at 3, 6 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sunday through Feb. 22, 2015, in the Lafayette Hotel, 2223 El Cajon Blvd.

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La Jolla Playhouse
2910 La Jolla Village Drive La Jolla CA 92037 USA Work Phone: 858.550.1010 Website: La Jolla Playhouse website
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