Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Hot L Baltimore

Time keeps moving on as fast and furious as a train regardless if we want it to or not, while the ghosts of our former-selves may linger far longer then they have served their purposes. That's the message that I got from Steppenwolf's production of Lanford Wilson's “The Hot L Baltimore” that's running though May on their main stage. The play set in the lobby of the Hotel Baltimore opened Off-Broadway at the Circle in the Square in 1973 and ran for 1666 performances.

The original Off-Broadway cast featured such future stars as Trish Hawkins, Conchata Ferrell, Judd Hirsch, and Jonathan Hogan playing the residents of the decaying hotel who faced eviction was also adapted in 1975 as a half hour sitcom for ABC featuring Ferral alongside James Cromwell, Richard Masur, and Charlotte Rae but was canceled after only thirteen episodes. It's not a surprise that Steppenwolf famed for their ensemble approach to theater chose an ensemble show what is surprising that at times the show directed by Tina Landau works and at many times falls short of achieving an ensemble feel to the piece.

First let's start off with the things that worked in this production and were able to transport the audience into this gorgeous hotels lobby where time seemed to stop as outside the doors time raced past you in the blink of an eye. Even though this is an ensemble show and most of the cast understood their roles in an ensemble their were performances that still shined separately and were deeply felt characterizations. I especially enjoyed Tony Nominee de'Adre Aziza as the wise cracking prostitute April whose voice is big but heart is bigger. I found Molly Regan bringing a wistful feel for the past as Millie to be quite touching without falling into the trap of being corny. Yasen Peyankov on the other side of the spectrum as the crotchety tenant Mr. Morse was able to make those traits work for his character without seeming like overkill. I enjoyed the work of Kate Arrington as the emotional prostitute Suzy though I found a full frontal nude scene by her thrown in for shock value more then anything else. I also thought Alana Arenas and Namir Smallwood were able to play the fine line between sinners and saints with enough variations were you still felt for both their characters while wanting to avoid them at the same time.

Sadly I can't say the same for Allison Torem's portrayal of the girl who it felt like did not know how to work within the confines of an ensemble piece and define her character. The same applies for Samuel Taylor's, angry and confusing Paul Granger III. In the case of both of these actors I felt like they were throwing their performances so far out in the field that they didn't have a safety net to be able to catch them and were lost though most of the show. I also found the entire concept including the unnecessary stage directions of Sean Allan Krill's character to be a distraction to the piece as a whole. It felt like a device the director stuck into the show to point out their concept in high definition. I got it within the first five minutes however two hours later and when he takes focus out of the characters I was more annoyed then won over by the “concept”.

As is always the case with any production on Steppenwolf's main stage you have to marvel at the detail and beauty of James Schuette run down yet oddly elegant Hotel L Baltimore massive set with it's steep staircase and individual rooms that were as much of an extension of the characters as the beautiful costumes designed by Ana Kuzmnic that ranged from bright 70's inspired pinks and beige’s to the lilacs of yesteryear . The lighting by Scott Zielinski was set to recall all the ghosts of this particular hotel while Mike Tutaj video design was able to help with the visualization of the ghosts from yesteryear. I did feel that the sound design and fight choreography could have been cleaned up a little bit more then it was but while neither added to the piece it didn't distract from it either.

The two most hazardous distractions however to this piece are a little harder to overcome. The first being in Tina Landau's direction where I felt like she worked so hard to prove the value of this piece that she ended up weighing it down with more unnecessary tricks that can be found under the sleeve of a magician. It's interesting because I found her work in The Ballad of Little Jo, and Time of Your Life, to have a lot more more power to it with a bigger concept then a show with little power.

Which brings me to the other hazardous distraction to this piece and unfortunately one that seems to be built into the frame work of the show. I'm sure in 1973 when this show premiered it came across as daring and a world that we could only look into but in 2011 we have either lived though these stories or seen them enough to be desensitized from the shock value that would have been produced when this play originally premiered.

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