Pale Knees on Pink Skin, written and directed by Derek Ahonen, is one part of HotelMotel, a site-specific, double-header production from The Amoralists, a visceral, critically-acclaimed Off Broadway company which Ahonen co-founded. His play centers around an unconventional sex therapist, her husband, and four new clients. Infidelity, trauma, jealousy, and psychological sadomasochism also play significant roles in the drama that unfolds entirely inside an upscale room in The Gershwin Hotel, for just 20 audience members at a time.

The other one act play that comprises HotelMotel is Animals and Plants, written and directed by Obie Award-winner Adam Rapp. Taken as a whole, the intimate production, which ends August 29th, takes an unflinching look at the desperate human need to be close to someone else, even for a fleeting moment. We recently spoke with Ahonen about his play, the production, and the hotel room's sordid past.

How did the idea for HotelMotel come about? I guess in April, we wanted to work with Adam Rapp again. We wanted to do a site-specific piece, and he had a motel play, Animals & Plants, that was written about ten years ago, that the rest of the company wanted to do. Adam and James, the artistic director, thought about bringing me in. I just finished Bring Us the Head of Your Daughter in April, that was a play written and directed for the company. They were basically like, "Can you write a play in a month and have it ready to go by the beginning of June?" And I was like, "Sure! Yeah! Let’s do it."

So that’s how I spent my May—going crazy over figuring out what the story I was going to tell in that hotel room was. We decided we wanted to make it a big, epic, linear site-specific kind of thing as opposed to some type of non-linear, 45-minute, typical site-specific experience. We wanted to actually tell a couple of real stories that existed in real time, where the fourth wall wasn’t really broken or anything like that, but you were just there in the room, experiencing it up close.

You wrote it specifically with the Gershwin in mind? With that particular room in mind, too. I knew what Animals & Plants already was, so it made it slightly easier to know what the second piece was going to be and to know where I was doing it, so I put it in that hotel room, which actually used to be an orgy room. Years ago, people used to go in there and have group sex. There’s a real feeling in the room of, things have happened in here. I think everyone that goes into that room feels something. I don’t know if it’s that, but it’s just something that they feel.

That’s almost eerie. Yeah, I know, it is.

Did you rehearse exclusively in that room? No, we were in our office downtown rehearsing a lot of the time. But we had the privilege of being able to rehearse there the last three weeks of our rehearsal process.

There was even another character that was in that show that was cut out a few days before we opened. The character didn’t make sense. That’s the kind of thing that happens when you’re writing on the fly like that. If you don’t have any gestation period to properly step away from the script and look at it for what it is, you’re just in the middle the entire time and sometimes you see that certain things aren’t working a day or two before it opens. And the poor actress had done this wonderful work but the character was just unnecessary.

081811amoral.jpg
Monica Simoes

What was your research process like? In terms of the sex, my research was you know, being around a lot of strong women when I was early, when I was twenty years old, and as a young man you always think you know what you’re doing and you don’t. You need to be with some cold-hearted women who really break your heart and teach you what to do and learn your way around a few things. In terms of the relationship stuff and in terms of the sexual issues, that all came from real life. In terms of proper terminology like anorgasmia and certain things that are a bit more medical, I just did the most basic research so I didn’t sound like an idiot.

Have you been getting interesting responses to the piece? Oh, absolutely. Everyone’s walking out of that theater with either a smile on their face or they’re walking out feeling a little bit destroyed. Nobody’s walking out yawning. The press has been predominantly very good. Everything we do that’s a little polarizing...It’s not a nice little thing with a ribbon attached to it. We’re never going to win the awards, everything is a little too polarizing for everyone to agree upon it being good. But the press has been predominantly nice to this one.

Much of the play is very funny, but there are such dark moments, where jealousy, rage, and resentment become these other characters. And we see Robert, Caroline, Ted and Allison hurting, trying to hurt and be hurt. I’m curious as to whether or not you view this as a tragedy or a comedy. I think of all my plays as comedies. to write the most commercial, Mickey Mouse-type things and the truth just comes through and it becomes all those other qualities—dark and tragic. So I always look at everything I write as a comedy, I think this is a comedy. But people are taking a lot of the things that I intended them to laugh at very seriously. [Laughs] The character of Dr. Sarah is kind of messianic, in the sense that although she is messing with everyone’s minds and casting spells over them, in the end she does fix both of the marriages, and sacrifices herself to do it. I wouldn’t call it tragedy because the marriages are saved in their own weird way. Her marriage with LeRoy and her relationship with her son can only get better because the truth is being revealed. Let’s call it a comedy with tears and ideas.

I found [the doctor] compelling in relation to our culture of therapy and doctor-worship. I was wondering if she’s meant to be a symbol of that, because she assumes a voice of authority, and then it’s quickly revealed that she is just as destructive and self-loathing as everyone else, if not more so. At a small level that’s in there, in terms of commenting on our doctor-worship. Her profession doesn’t exist, I just made that up: an orgy therapist for couples that aren’t working. So the premise of people needing to go and have an orgy to save their marriage, that’s a commentary on how ridiculous therapy is. But it also became real. It’s not a farce. Even just saying it it sounds like a farce, but it’s not. It became really real to me. The problems and why they would think that having an orgy would fix them actually makes sense. But the whole idea of going to have an orgy to save your marriage is ridiculous.

081811amoral3.jpg
Monica Simoes

Going back to the tragic aspect of it—you force the audience to reflect on difficult or embarrassing aspects of their own romantic and sexual relationships. That experience is especially pronounced because of the small space. It’s impossible to look away. Was that your intention? Do you think that theater of this nature could actually provide a sort of therapy? I totally get what you’re saying. You’re being watched as an audience member while you’re watching the show. You’re giving away a lot of yourself by what you find amusing. That’s not the goal of the audience. You want to get away—I mean, you want to see yourself in the characters and within the story, you want to have something familiar, but you don’t want to be seen by the people.

In terms of release, that’s what you’re going for. You’re going for some type of cathartic experience. I hope that [the audience is] not suffering from the same problems that these characters are, but I still want them to see themselves in the characters. The jealousies and the intimacy of it all enhances that. I think if it were playing on the stage that we normally perform at, which is about 150 seats at Theater 80, it would be looked at as more farcical, it would be a little more funny because there would be some distance. But an approach like that, it does provide more of a maelstrom of terror inside the people that are watching it.

Are you working on anything at the moment? I wrote a show in the beginning of the year. It was a Noel Coward play, and I wanted it to be a Noel Coward play but then it got filtered through me, and became it’s own really interesting thing. It takes place in a penthouse in the 1930s in the Depression, people are in a penthouse drinking champagne and something is terribly wrong. We were thinking of doing that next season in the theater, and then we were thinking we like the site-specific stuff so much we were like, Let’s do it in a penthouse. We’re seeing if we can do that now, in an actual penthouse, a penthouse loft with fifty people in there. If not, I’ll figure out what else to write.

Do you keep up a writing practice while you’re also directing?
No, no, I can’t do that. I can’t multitask that much. So basically as soon as the show opens, my directorial duties are done, and that’s when I start getting ideas. Being in the theater, or in this case being in the hotel room, I get ideas, and I gotta to pick the right ones, filter it through, vet it with myself, figure out whether it’s worthy of a couple months of my time to explore and write, and then we do it.

This particular piece, because it was last-minute, my inclusion in it was a little bit hellish. I’m looking forward to just being able to write something and have some time to re-write it and look at it, and not have to go through insanity that takes a couple years off my life.