Audience members assemble in a seedy-plush old lounge where they're served absinthe (or something green with an anise-y taste), listen to music, and are treated familiarly by an oily host in a tux. They're issued off-white, hard-shelled masks—almost exactly like one worn by a sex-cult member in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut—and admonished to keep them on for the duration. Then they're taken by elevator to another floor and let loose. My wife says that as she headed off through the open gate, the elevator operator whispered to her, "I think you're going to be very lucky tonight."
What happens after that is definitely a matter of luck, as well as careful design on the part of director Felix Barrett. The crucial factor, however, is architecture.
In fact, I'd say architecture is the true main character of Sleep No More—not just an enabling device or a setting or a gimmick. Perhaps because of the masks and the voyeuristic anonymity they provide, the show is often compared to Eyes Wide Shut. But it's actually got a lot more in common with another Kubrick film, The Shining. Like the little boy, Danny, in that hallucinatory piece of work, we audience members wander a maze of hallways and rooms that every so often open out into the uncanny. The "hotel" itself seems to be engaging us, keeping and disclosing secrets according to its own logic.
A lot of what we see takes the form of aggressive action. Cast members rush by and we follow them to find a woman in a tub, apparently acting out Lady Macbeth's obsessive attempt to wash away her crimes. Hotel employees dance on and around a heavy old reception desk. At one point my wife, the lucky one, found herself in what she describes as a tiny hut in a woods, tended by a nurse who removed her mask, spoke soothingly to her, and spoon-fed her tea before turning her out with a hissing, "Blood begets blood!"
But there's just as much intrigue in the passive settings created by Barrett, Livi Vaughn, and Beatrice Minns. An infirmary. An old nursery. A taxidermist's studio. A long, dark corridor paneled in corrugated tin. An indescribable place—maybe a detective's office?—wallpapered in notes. There are letters for us to read, photos for us to ponder, drawers for us to open, doors for us to try that are sometimes locked and sometimes not. I've heard that couples attend Sleep No More for no other reason than to have sex where only the building will see them.
Describing the breakthrough of epic theater, Bertolt Brecht wrote that "the stage began to narrate." The McKittrick Hotel isn't quite so forthright. It talks, all right, but it's as apt to deceive us as tell the truth. It has its own plans. What happens to us inside its walls is our problem.
Read more from Architecture Week:
Deanna Isaacs's cover story, "Tigerman on the loose"