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A CurtainUp Review
The Hot L Baltimore
By Elyse Sommer
Two of the rails of the staircase banister are missing -- so, by the final act, is the "e" from the marquee (ergo, the play's title!). The lobby furniture is shabby and the carpet worn. If the ski parka clad man who's sleeping in one of the wing chairs is any indication, the Hotel Baltimore's clientele matches its decor. (Thomas Sadoski, the young drifter who does eventually wake up, happens to be the only person in the hotel with any higher education). Not that either the condition of the hotel or its clientele matter much since it's slated for the wrecker's ball.
Clearly this is not an American version of Grand Hotel, but Lanford Wilson's vision of a fading urban landscape and its accumulated human flotsam and jetsam. It is an essentially plotless vision, a mosaic of a day in the lives of the Hotel Baltimore's eccentric residents and passers through. These people -- some young, some old, all stuck on the margins of society -- embody the playwright's poignant and tragic lament for lost values. Tarnished as the slice of life they represent may be, their interactions and revelations are also the stuff of the human comedy which accounts for the fact that the play's characters and setting once served as the basis for a weekly TV sitcom. As in many a sitcom nothing much happens so that it is up to the characters and dialogue to engage us. They move in and out of the lobby. They hang out. They have confrontations. At times their conversations overlap like a musical fugue.
The Hot L Baltimore, which debuted at the Circle Rep, which Wilson helped to found in 1973, was the company's first major success (moving from Off-Broadway to Broadway and playing for 1066 performances). The theme of urban decay and the people caught up in it are as timely as ever and the Williamstown Theatre Festival's revival is a tribute to theatrical glories past. Thanks to that master of the realistically detailed set, John Lee Beatty, Wilson's hotel has been resurrected on the Adams Memorial Theatre stage in all its seedy glory. Under Joe Mantello's astute direction, the production has a distinctive something old-something very "now" look, wonderfully enhanced by Laura Bauer's amusing costumes. Most notably NOW is a bang-up Act One finale that has Suzy (Cyndi Coyne) the outrageous hooker bare all her curves as she dashes up Mr. Beatty's curvy staircase.
Good as Ms. Coyne is, with as well as without clothes, this is an ensemble effort in which the women make the strongest impression (with television actress Sara Gilbert, as the desperately and foolishly optimistic Jackie, forging the weakest and least convincing link). Mandy Siegfried keeps the character known only as Girl (because she's always changing her name) from being as annoying as she might easily be if portrayed by a less skilled and versatile actress. Also very effective are Lois Smith as the spiritually inclined Millie, Helen Hanft as the mother of a missing son and Carol Woods as a tough hotel clerk.
But the actress who has us sit up whenever things threaten to slow to something of a crawl is Becky Ann Baker as April Green, the older hooker in residence. To be sure, this is the play's meatiest part and with the best lines -- from the wry reference to her genuine "silk dacron" kimono, to the sharp insults especially of her younger compatriot in the oldest profession, to her putting Baltimore into perspective as one of many cities that "used to be one of the most beautiful cities " in America as just one more city. However, having seen Ms. Baker in her last several roles at Williamstown and in New York, I can safely say that she is a theatrical treasure who should be seen more often. Her April is the first, second and third reason for checking into this old hotel.
Despite the enduring warmth of Wilson's words and observations, the luxury of a large cast and Mr. Beatty's drop dead set, this year 2000 Hot L Baltimore can't recapture the excitement and discovery of the original production. Its interest is as a historic artifact, a taste of music on vinyl in a CD world. That said, the predominance of revivals on Broadway and this prolific and very American playwright's Pulitzer Prize winning cachet might well carry this production to Broadway, as was the case with WTF's revivals of The Price and The Rainmaker. I don't think such a revival would come close to its original 1000+ performances any more than those other Broadway transfers did. A much better idea would be for the Signature Theater which each year devotes a whole season to an outstanding living playwright (John Guare, Arthur Miller, Horton Foote, etc.) to put the spotlight on Wilson's work.
In the meantime, you could do a lot worse than to while away a couple of summer hours in the temporarily resurrected lobby of the Hot(e)l Baltimore.
©Copyright 2000, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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