Review by Kathleen Campion
When an oddly titled comedy staged in a loft at Broadway and 83rd becomes the “must see” of the season—garnering Obies and Drama Critics Circle awards as it moves up the food chain from “off off” to “off Broadway,” while launching the careers of people like Conchata Ferrel and Judd Hirsh — and solidifying the collaboration of playwright Lanford Wilson and director Marshall Mason—well, you reprise something like that with caution.
Hot L Baltimore, set in the lobby of the Hotel Baltimore, focuses on the residents of the decaying hotel property who are faced with eviction when the structure is condemned. It became the hot ticket of the 1973 season.
So when the folks at T. Schreiber Studio for Theatre determined they would produce a twenty-first-century version, up seven flights to fewer than 50 lumpy seats on 26th street, (the venue something of an homage to the first go-round), you walk in wondering — hoping — but wondering how will it stand up after 42 years?
Answer: it stands up very well indeed. It is not freshened up or updated. It remains wonderful.
Wilson often crowds the stage with players, fifteen in this one. The hotel is a rathole: no hot water and the windows don’t quite shut. Still, the family of outliers — hookers, retirees, “flotsam and jetsam,” and the down-at-the-heels staff—quickly become people you can care about.
Alexandra Hellquist (The Girl) is exhausting in her youthful exuberance. She must have double the lines of anyone else and there are times when you wish she would just shut up. She is, however, the driving force of the story, so neurotic she cannot decide what to call herself, yet she forces the action at every turn. The young men approach and avoid while the other women indulge her. Hellquist never lets up.
It is Stephanie Seward’s April Green you long to hear more from. Seward plays the aging slattern with a worldly resignation. The girl says Baltimore used to be beautiful. April reins her in saying all American cities “used” to be better. Seward’s April ricochets between resignation and moments of joy and abandon that draw us to her.
Anna Holbrook’s Millie, a self described outsider, is the spirited wise-woman of the piece. Millie waits for people to come to her. Holbrook makes her the quiet center of the set for long stretches. She is accomplished in her watching and waiting.
The noisiest presence is Jill Bianchini’s Suzy. She storms the stage every time she enters, and storms off when she exits. If April is the heart-of-gold hooker, Suzy is the driven, desperate one, full of fast talk and rationalization. She does a naked run through the first act, taking no prisoners, making no apologies. Bianchini’s Suzy is froth on the surface and heartbreaking at the core.
Lisa Sobin (Jackie) and Philip Rosen (Jamie) play the damaged sister and brother team — she the strident schemer he the dominated kid brother. Sobin’s Jackie is more fiercely on the make than any of the hookers. Her desperation is palpable. Rosen gives Jamie a sweetness so that he has moments with almost all the others that show you there is someone “in” there desperate to get out.
Shane Rodney Lacoss plays Paul Granger III — the “angry-young-man” of the piece —with conviction. Peter Judd plays Mr. Morse, the old guy who practices opera in the lobby, mostly for laughs. Still, as Wilson writes them, each has the undercurrent of loss and emptiness layered in. Jerry Topitzer (Bill Lewis), Joan D. Saunders (Mrs. Oxenham), and Bill Barry (Katz) play the beleaguered staff going through the motions of running the place and managing the odd-ball clientele.
Act 1 roars along like the freight trains referenced throughout. In Act 2 the pace slackens a bit and not to advantage. Even so, there is more than enough to intrigue and delight.
There was a value added gracenote at the curtain call on opening night: director Peter Jensen urged the original director, Marshall Mason, from the audience to join him on stage.
Hot L Baltimore Written by Lanford Wilson; directed by Peter Jensen
WITH: Jerry Topitzer (Bill Lewis), Alexandra Hellquist (The Girl), Anna Holbrook (Millie), Wendy Mae Shelton (Mrs. Bellotti), Stephanie Seward (April Green), Peter Judd (Mr. Morse), Lisa Sobin (Jackie), Bill Barry (Katz), Jill Bianchini (Suzy), Cameron Crocker (Suzy’s John), Philip Rosen (Jamie), Shane Rodney Lacoss (Paul Granger III), Joan D. Saunders (Mrs. Oxenham), James S. Hogan (Taxi Driver), Matthew Dean Wood (Delivery Boy).
Designed by George Allison; lighting by Eric Cope; sound design by Andy Cohen; costumes by Mary Cann; assistant directors are Lucy Caraballo and Quameisha Moreno.
At the T. Schreiber Theatre, 151 West 26th Street in Manhattan through November 21. Running time: two hours with one intermission.