Here's an old playwriting trick: If you want to tap into the audience's emotions, have your characters dance. Lanford Wilson, for instance, made hay with this effect in his rueful The Hot L Baltimore, which builds to a nostalgic dance among the evicted residents of a derelict hotel. The Baltimore Waltz, Paula Vogel's 80-minute assault on fear, climaxes with a waltz between a grieving sister and her deceased brother, the living and the dead, which is undeniably moving.
Written in the 1980s when relatively little was known about the new plague called AIDS, The Baltimore Waltz tells the ever-spiraling, increasingly surreal tale of Anna (Michelle Hand), a prim elementary-school teacher whose brother Carl (B. Weller, sweetly delightful) is about to die. To assuage her grief, Anna concocts an imaginary whirlwind tour through Europe in search of cures that might save Carl. Anna works through her confusion over AIDS by pretending that she is the ill one, suffering from a mysterious new virus called ATD (Acquired Toilet Disease). In her bizarre fantasy she lives every day with wild abandon.
On the trip Anna encounters an array of crazy oddballs, all served up with relish by Will Ledbetter (whose work becomes ever more assured). Among these amusing loonies is a quack that Vogel ripped off from the title character in Dr. Strangelove. An apt choice indeed: In 1964 Stanley Kubrick's film drove an early wedge into the Cold War by allowing viewers to laugh at their fears; by striving to find comedy in grief, Vogel sought the same result to lessen the fearsome specter of AIDS.
So why doesn't this Stray Dog Theatre production, which has been directed with a flourish by Gary F. Bell, live up to the script's promise? Perhaps for a couple of reasons. First, this set does not establish the play's locale which the program informs us is a waiting lounge in Johns Hopkins Hospital. But if you don't read the program beforehand, there's a good chance you won't know where you are. It's hard to enter the world of Anna's mind if you don't first know what world you're leaving.
Second, this is Anna's story. Ledbetter and Weller should be supporting Michelle Hand. But there's a sense here that she is supporting them. Hand's performances often excel at finding substance in the ephemeral. Last year she worked miracles in the flimsy From Door to Door; last month she found a vein of humor in a shallow featured role in Standing on My Knees. But here she doesn't seem comfortable. She's like a trapeze artist who's not quite ready to grab the bar and swing out. Only at evening's end, when the style switches from absurd to realistic, does Hand find something to cling to. She makes the most of those affecting final minutes. But if the production ends on a strong note, it is undone by the most dimly lit curtain call in memory. Very strange.
Although there are flaws in The Baltimore Waltz, both the play and the production seem like masterworks in comparison to Tim Lord's 11 Hills of San Francisco, which is not yet ready for its world premiere staging at the unhelpful hands of HotCity Theatre Company's GreenHouse. I saw better-written, better-structured plays than this three weeks ago at the WiseWrite Festival, and those scripts were by fifth graders. At least the kids had been taught that a good play has to be about something.
Presumably (and charitably), 11 Hills is vaguely about the quest for a muse. The lead role is a poet (we're told he "writes poems like John Keats, only better") who sits at his typewriter surrounded by lots of crumpled paper on the floor (to let us know that writing is tough work) and utters lines like "The dry...the dry, dry, dry" and "I am shimmering, a beam of light." As (not) directed by Michael Jokerst, this is a rudderless production that leaves everyone adrift, including the viewer.
Like flies caught in a spider web, the actors are trapped in a situation beyond their poor powers to add or detract. Though I assume they would prefer to remain nameless, I couldn't help but be struck by the presence of Julie Layton. Precisely one year ago this week, in the GreenHouse's provocative Skin in Flames, Layton delivered a searing performance in which she exposed her body and bared her soul. Here she enacts a character so devoid of wants, needs or even a reason to exist that the actress has nothing to work with except her own Holly Golightly charm. In the opening scene, having just spent a night of passionate lovemaking with the poet, Layton's naked body is wrapped up in a tentlike towel. With every move she makes, Layton intuitively checks to make certain that she's still demurely covered. Every time she hikes up that towel, Layton confirms that nothing is at stake here; this play is not worthy of anyone baring anything; to do so would be gratuitous rather than compelling.
Companies like GreenHouse like to utter noble sentiments about the importance of staging new plays. But who benefits from this production? Not the viewers, not the actors, not even the playwright who will learn precious little about where to go from here. The critics aren't served either, because we end up as the fall guys, obligated to write publicly what people in the audience were muttering privately. Sure, we can pretend to probe for themes or talk about performances. But when there's nothing here, we should not be expected to continue the charade of pretending there is.