Director Dave Houghton writes the following in his Notes: “The circumstances of our hotel remind me of current times in America. Some want to tear it down, some want to sell if off, and some sit quietly and reminisce. We all wait to see what will happen, and hope for the best.” He calls “this,” Lanford Wilson’s “probably. . .most enduring legacy.” I believe the recently deceased playwright deserves better than to be remembered for the tepid social criticism found here, and his reputation certainly should be considered in light of stronger, more enduring work. The 1973 play is a dated curiosity from another time in America when it could have (or not) reflected Wilson’s dim view of Watergate era, but it might also just indicate a deep feeling for the dispossessed; a feeling that, as a gay man seemingly uncomfortable with that identity for much of his life, Wilson himself may have shared.
The hotel could as easily be considered an allegory for Purgatory, and if it were, it would place Wilson as a moderate as an “issue” playwright (unlike, say, Steambath that is set in actual hell). He likes his characters, but he keeps a distance from them. As for them, most are, as Houghton says, willing to wait for judgment about their home. They meet in the lobby every day to interact with each other, and the actors inhabit their roles with various levels of success. They are all eccentrics of one kind of another, but the characters feel stale today. That’s not necessarily a function of time (For example, You Can’t Take it With You holds up) but topicality.
There is still some comedy to be mined from this oldie, but not much material anyone under the age of eligibility for a senior discount at Denny’s is likely to get. Jokes about Calvin Coolidge’s cheapness, DDT, and radio infomercials aren’t funny now. Hookers with hearts of gold who don’t seem to be worried about disease or other disasters seem quaint. Everyone onstage is working hard, but it’s just not enough. It is time to tear down the old hotel and move on. And that represents what Dave Houghton is doing. This is his last Soundstage production as Artistic Director. He has overseen the good, the bad, and the rest for the last five years. I think his “enduring legacy” is giving interested actors a chance to practice their skills in a non-threatening, collegial environment, which is no small feat.
It needs to be mentioned that this is “reader’s theatre,” or “theatre of the mind,” the term Soundstage has coined for its hybrid presentations. The actors do carry scripts, but they are costumed (and these by Rick Carfora are noteworthy for their appropriateness in character definition) and most refer to the page only occasionally. The scenery is minimal, and there are music stands to hold the books for them, so they are free to gesture. The Hot’l Baltimore ensemble includes, in order of appearance, Rick Carfora, Angela Sebben Frick, Aaron Markham, Deborah Dennert, Kathleen Niemeyer, Liz Haynes, Collins Lewis, Jan Carson, Steven Forbey, Cliff Mirabella, Alyssa Ward, Paul S. Cooper, and Ann Stuart.
Hot’l Baltimore runs through Oct. 9. You may visit www.soundstageproductions.net. Andrea Braun also reviews for KDHX 88.1 St. Louis.
BY: ANDREA BRAUN – THEATRE CORRESPONDENT