By Charlene Baldridge
Little Ben is the love child of Lana Turner and Bob Hope, conceived at the Lafayette Hotel in the days when both film stars had reputations to lose. So Little Ben was hidden from public view, his mother having given birth to him in one of the hotel suites. He never saw her again. The boy lived all his life at the Lafayette.
If you believe that one, playwright/director Tom Salamon, whose “The Grift” is playing at the hotel through March 22 as part of La Jolla Playhouse’s WoW (Without Walls) Festival, will tell you another. Old hotels have legendary stories and this one, perhaps based in fact, is a doozy. Think of Eloise.
Filmed on his deathbed, Old Ben (Jim Chovick) charges the color-coded teams of audience members, each equipped with its own set of casks that contain clues, to learn cons that allow them to catch and bring to his knees a notorious grifter who bilked Ben’s caretaker’s grandmother out of her fortune. His name is Killer Joe (Bernard H. Kopso), and his downfall is effected through a series of cons, which we learn while meandering all over the vintage hotel, from a cabana off its famous swimming pool, to the life-sized chessboard, to the room in which Ben was raised by a series of nannies, lifeguards, bellhops and bartenders, and to the hotel restaurant for refreshments. No wonder the kid himself grew up to be a latter day grifter.
Audience members are cautioned to wear comfortable shoes and bring their brain cells. The fortunate, as this writer was, will have team members who prove to be fleet of foot, acute of axons and dendrites, and un-cowed by being part of the action. (There is plenty of room for those who are cowed to hang back.) The smoothly timed arrivals and departures are the essence of immersive discoveries and disclosures. For the final con, an art auction with a switcheroo, we wind up once again in the ballroom.
Other acting company members and con teachers are Matt Thompson as the narrator, Yvette Angulo as the chambermaid’s daughter, Lucas Coleman as the bartender’s grandson, Dana Lau as the nanny’s great-granddaughter, Scott Nickley as the lifeguard’s grandson (my favorite scene) and Cris O’Bryon as the bellhop’s grandson. By the end of the two-hour traipse, one feels like booking a room and falling into the hotel’s glorious swimming pool.
The feeling of wanting to jump in must be attributed to writer/director Salamon, who is a specialist in developing immersive entertainment. Pun intended.
All praise to producing partner Diabolical Muse, and to the Playhouse design team, Laura Zingle, Amy Chini, Jennifer Brawn Gittings, Sergio Lopez, Michael Latimer, Jacob Bruce, Lisa Chan-Wylie, Sarah Wheeler, Sofia Zaragoza and Marie Shelton.
In case you’re wondering, the Red Fox Steakhouse and Piano Bar, connected to the Lafayette Hotel, is alive and well in all its retro wonder.
—Contact Charlene Baldridge at firstname.lastname@example.org.