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STAGE REVIEW

Fascinating characters inhabit ‘Hotel Nepenthe’

In ‘‘The Hotel Nepenthe,’’ playwright John Kuntz takes on a variety of roles, including a fairy godmother, a bus passenger, and a taxi dispatcher. In ‘‘The Hotel Nepenthe,’’ playwright John Kuntz takes on a variety of roles, including a fairy godmother, a bus passenger, and a taxi dispatcher. (Stratton McCrady)
By Terry Byrne
Globe Correspondent / March 1, 2011

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SOMERVILLE — The word “misfit’’ doesn’t begin to describe the wacky assortment of visitors to “The Hotel Nepenthe.’’ Award-winning actor and playwright John Kuntz treads just this side of “The Twilight Zone’’ with his newest play, a tale that includes a bloody murder, a fatal car crash, a mysterious hat box, and a missing baby.

“The Hotel Nepenthe’’ is the second of three plays presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project as part of the company’s Winter Festival, staged in an empty retail space in Davis Square the company calls “The Storefront.’’ Director David R. Gammons, who also designed the set and costumes for this production, seems to relish the challenges inherent in the space, using dressing room cubicles to suggest both the hotel rooms and the actors’ dressing rooms. Apparently unrelated set pieces (a tub, a podium, a couch, some chairs) become more or less important depending on the focus of a particular scene, and two cameras capture disorienting views of the actors in performance to skew our perception of where and what to watch.

Although the “nepenthe’’ of Kuntz’s title comes from the Greek word for a drug of forgetfulness to alleviate sorrow, ’70s sitcom theme songs are clearly ringing in his head, and every time his plot starts to drift into darker realms, a song snippet yanks his characters back to the land of outrageous humor. No fewer than 17 characters (played by four actors) appear in and around the hotel, but in spite of Kuntz’s efforts to weave their stories loosely together, you might find yourself agreeing with a few who wish the feeling “this is all just a bunch of random stuff happening’’ would dissipate and this would all make sense.

But, even if “Hotel Nepenthe’’ feels more like a collection of fascinating character sketches than a complete play, oh, what an opportunity for actors to strut their stuff. Kuntz doesn’t write extended dialogue so much as a series of deliriously witty monologues that serve as catnip for the quartet of talented performers under Gammons’s creative direction. Just watch Marianna Bassham react to an invisible TV screen as she portrays a rental car receptionist awaiting a customer. She barely moves away from her podium and yet, without the slightest hint of mugging, her face registers a litany of emotion, and that’s before she starts riffing on “Bewitched’’ and “The Odd Couple.’’

Follow Georgia Lyman as the elegantly dressed starlet she portrays sinks into the prominently positioned claw-footed tub and then begins to describe a party she attended. Her name-dropping escalates to absurd levels as she rises from the tub, finally perching atop the edges, her precarious position a metaphor for her “celebrity’’ status. Or listen as Daniel Berger-Jones calmly describes his experience with sexual harassment as a 7-year-old, before morphing into the Hotel Nepenthe’s lugubrious bellhop, a car thief high on an aerosol spray, and a paranoid bus driver. Kuntz, too, takes on a variety of roles, including a fairy godmother, a hilariously annoying bus passenger, and a taxi dispatcher.

“The Hotel Nepenthe’’ may never make much sense, but after laughing all the way through to the wildly funny interpretive dance encore, you may not care.

Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.

THE HOTEL NEPENTHE

Play by John Kuntz

Directed by David R. Gammons

Sets, Costumes, Gammons. Lights, Jeff Adelberg. Sound, Bill Barclay.

Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project as part of the Winter Festival, at The Storefront in Davis Square, 255 Elm St., Somerville, through Sunday. Tickets: $39. 866-811-4111, actorsshakespeareproject.org