Sunday, November 04, 2007

Paula Vogel's The Baltimore Waltz Limps a Bit

In John Lahr's recent New Yorker review of Terrence McNally's The Ritz he wonders aloud why someone had decided to revive it. I won't go so far as Lahr in also wondering why McNally wrote it, but I have similar feelings about the Monmouth College Theatre's production of Paula Vogel's 1989 The Baltimore Waltz. Vogel's surrealistic late-eighties take on the death of her brother from AIDS has attracted comments on its lack of character development, coherence, balance, and tonal control right from the first New York production in 1992. It was saved then (and unfortunately not now) by some truly outstanding performances. In my judgement, The Ritz, The Baltimore Waltz, and even the somewhat later Angels in America, now reside in the grey limbo that exists between currency and classic. AIDS, as the play program points out elouquently, is still a scourge; but treatments have been found since Vogel wrote The Baltimore Waltz and at least in Europe and the US, the bathhouse mentality that ended up killing so many is no longer a wished for or idolized behavior. That is why I find it hard today to watch the ironic projection of the broadly comic ATD(Acquired Potty Disease) onto a female whose response is to throw herself into a series of unprotected sexual adventures with multiple partners. When you didn't know what it was and where it was coming from, you could laugh a little more easily at ever more absurd attempts to locate some kind of cure.

Whether The Baltimore Waltz will lose its current uneasy sense of "an outdated campy take" on the HIV problem is not an easy call. Ibsen has managed to weather the storm even though we now know that sylphilis does not act in quite the way he imagined it did and that a few drops of chlorine in the water would have cleaned up the mess in Dr. Stockman's waters. Lillian Hellman is showing some signs of doing it. Miller and Williams seem solid, but much of the specific work based on the Viet Nam War has sunk into well deserved agit-prop oblivion. My guess is that if Vogel does make it to the next tier, it will be more for her later and more developed works (e.g. How I Learned to Drive).

To be fair It is also hard to imagine what the show might have looked like with the original Carl in the cast. Brandon Landon, who took over the role only two weeks ago, must be hailed as a "trouper extraordinaire," but he never quite seemed secure either physically or emotionally in the play that was swirling about him. His character is supposed to be well educated and multi-lingual, but Landon was clearly faltering on any number of foreign pronunciations in comparison to many of the other cast members who had far more time to be drilled and rehearsed. Perhaps also the tension that made his voice seem edgy and strident receded after opening night. I am afraid, however, that even with the great effort and a few more nights under his belt, he will still seem to be floating over the top of the show without seeming truly a part of it. That is the situation. He is to be commended for taking the part on; he has saved the show. Give him two more weeks and he will probably seem far more a part of the project than a late addtion to it. In the theatre you play on with the cards you are dealt.

The remainder of the cast, in contrast, did seem to be inside the show. Missy Metz's Anna was perhaps more convincing as an elementary teacher than a wanton seductress, but she had a softness that functioned well as the show reached its surprise turning point into tragedy. Director Janeve West's decision to multi-cast the "Third Man" closes down some options for showcasing one truly versatile performer, yet it opens up a whole host of choreographic additions that make the show more physically compelling. The opening mime that pairs Carl and Anna gently circling while singing and dancing to the children's song Inchworm while the white coated ensemble create a jagged bustle of white coated doctors is a case in point. To pick out any one of the ensemble is tough as they all seemed to melt into their roles seamlessly. I did enjoy their general weed dragging lurking as scene shifters as well as Brittany Alston's contrasting doctors.

Doug Rankin's lighting and design did make the tiny space of the WIT theatre vibrate with excitement. The white gauze curtains sweeping in to blur the sex scenes while also keeping the hospital ambiance were particularly inventive and the snowflake machine sputtering away at the end to put the ultimate romantic icing on Anna's return to fantasy was superb.

In one of the early stage directions Vogel says, "the director is encouraged to score the production with music--every cliche' of the European experience as imagined by Hollywood." This is done throughout and holds the show together. Musical integration is clearly a major talent in director West's large arsenal of talents. I think also of her production of Proof last year.

One of the things about a small arena production space is your total consciousness of the spectators as well as the actors. Thus as Anna, the traveler, has sex with everything that moves and Carl, the librarian, concentrates on art museums, you can also see the audience bifurcate--though by age rather than activity. The young, on the whole, seemed far more amused than the old. The young took the easy laughs, nudged their companion in the ribs, and rolled on. I'm in the "old" section and I'm choking off my laughter. The eighties are too fresh in my mind. Unprotected promiscuous sex played for laughs occupies well over half of the play and whether it is heterosexual or homesexual it is real tough for me to get into a laughing mood about it. And three minutes of sadness and pirouettes at the end doesn't quite balance the scales.

No comments: