The last time Kristoffer Diaz opened a play in Chicago was 2009, when The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity premiered at Victory Gardens Theater. The show did so well that it moved to off-Broadway’s Lincoln Center and was short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize. Now, the author of is back in town with a new world premiere, titled The Upstairs Concierge, opening Saturday at the Goodman Theatre. “Listen, I owe my career to this city,” says Diaz, sipping on a post-rehearsal Manhattan at Petterino’s bar. Diaz is, to put it mildly, enthused.
It’s been a long road to this Manhattan. The Brooklyn-based playwright spent the last four years workshopping The Upstairs Concierge, including one developmental production at the Goodman's New Stages Festival back in 2013. Now, after all this time, it's finally ready for a release.
The high-octane farce centers around Ella (Second City main stage cast member Tawny Newsome), a recent college grad and newly hired hotel concierge charged with juggling a floor full of high-maintenance celebrities and their obsessive fans. Expect a lot of outrageous takes on Kardashian-level guests, a healthy dose of physical comedy, and, in true celebrity-in-a-hotel fashion, trashed hotel rooms and stripped-down stars. Diaz even enlisted real celebrities for a complementary video series, where stars such as America Ferrera and Tanya Saracho call Ella with their own requests.
The hour-and-a-half show, with improv ace Newsome at the center, is the result of a commission Goodman and Teatro Vista offered Diaz in 2010 with basically no strings attached. He already was thinking about the concept of a new play and wanted to do a farce, but other than that he had no guidelines to worry about.
“They told me to do whatever I wanted. And then they gave me the time and the space to really develop it,” Diaz says. “We had rehearsals where we spent half the time doing improv, and the improv helped inform the script. That kind of time to play is rare."
Diaz eventually landed on the topic of celebrity worship for the commissioned work. “It’s a big part of how we live,” he says chewing on a green olive. “I think about celebrities, and I wonder what it’s like to have people you don’t even know recognize and love you.” He pauses. “But this is also a play about relationships. Underneath all the chaos, this is a play about people trying to connect.”
The hub of all connections in The Upstairs Concierge is Ella, a role that Diaz wrote with Newsome in mind (they first met in 2010 when she was serving as a DJ consultant on his play Welcome to Arroyo's). “We had dinner together years ago, and I told her, 'I’m going to write a show for you.’ I meant it. That’s the kind of thing you say and then you never have time to actually do. But when I got the Goodman commission, I knew I wanted her in the lead. She can act and she can do comedy; farce is so hard to do right. She’s the center of the whole piece, keeping everything together while nine other crazy people are storming around her.”
Ironically, Diaz’s play development has not included staying at any ultra-posh hotels. Instead, he’s been bunking at an apartment on the north side while he’s in town. “Yeah,” he shrugs, “Fancy hotels aren’t really my element. Although I could probably get used to it. “
The Upstairs Concierge opens March 28 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn. goodmantheatre.org