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When you go home after living abroad, you inevitably leave part of yourself behind. If you were living in a different language, there are zesty idioms and forceful exclamations for which you now find no native equivalent—and maybe that means whole swaths of your experience can’t really be translated. But ghosts of that other place and self will haunt you nonetheless: a little non-English syntax complicating your speech, perhaps, or stifled urges to use eloquent and now totally meaningless foreign expressions.
Eliza Bent’s delightful, melancholy comedy The Hotel Colors—now playing the Bushwick Starr in a production stylishly directed by Anna Brenner—makes this experiential in-between-ness into a poignant metaphor for life’s many periods of uncertainty.
At a hostel in Rome, a motley crowd of Italians is thrown into a temporary community by their dormitory lodgings. Each of them is in some kind of existential suspension: fleeing romantic entanglements, looking for a new job, just returning from a period of expatriation, living in the limbo of constant travel. Through a long day of hanging out, we see them fret about aging, endure exasperating phone calls with distant relatives, update their blogs. They go for pizza, drink wine, hook up, break up, reminisce and regret. (The eloquent set, by Blanca Añón, somehow encapsulates the social essence of every dingy, friendly hostel you’ve ever visited.)
Bent’s formal conceit—first very droll, then more and more moving—is that her characters do all this in dialogue literally translated from Italian. Affectionate Mediterranean malapropisms abound. Our onstage friends curse about “Pig misery!”; parse the romantic distinction between a lover and a “betrothed girlfriend”; “control” their e-mail and “systematize” their luggage. Many of their reference points are deliberately alien: They make jokes about the accents and manners of Sardinians, or register important shifts in social tone by switching to the “formal you” mode of address.
But as the evening goes on, the choppy syntax and orphaned proverbs become figures for the dislocation and yearning of Bent’s characters—and our own. The characters have trouble communicating with each other and with us, but that only makes their flailing attempts at connection more heroic. We’re catching them in the limbo after the end of an affair, or before the beginning of a fresh chapter, as they endeavor to translate themselves into new people—the kind of fragile, rootless times that remind us that life itself is a temporary and sometimes threadbare accommodation, a kind of hostel between our first entrance and our final exit. (A copy of Heidegger’s Being and Time makes the rounds, reminding us of this existential dimension of the characters’ plight.) The production creates corresponding intervals of in-between-ness for its spectators too. During brief breaks in the action, we’re served pizza and wine—are we visiting the same Roman pizzeria as the characters? Have the actors returned to Brooklyn to party with us?
The play concludes with a slumber party re-telling of The Three Little Pigs, as Bent’s weary, unmoored travelers wistfully conjure a vision of a home so sturdy and cozy it can keep even the ravenous wolf at bay—hoping to find again what was lost in translation.