Stage Review: 'Hot L Baltimore' is slice of life with sitcom feel

Nick Lerew and Bussy Gower appear in a scene from "The Hot L Baltimore" at Playhouse on the Square. (Chris Neely Photography)

Nick Lerew and Bussy Gower appear in a scene from "The Hot L Baltimore" at Playhouse on the Square. (Chris Neely Photography)

Lanford Wilson never quite achieved the same level of acclaim that some of his fellow contemporary playwrights — Edward Albee and Terrence McNally among them — earned with work that has a similar ring to Wilson's.

They all explored the nooks and crannies of human psychology, often in characters struggling with their eccentricities or situations.

Wilson's 1973 play "The Hot L Baltimore," newly revived at Playhouse on the Square, is full of misfits and miscreants, outsiders and outliers. They've all filed into a shabby old hotel in Baltimore where the bath water is cold and the elevator is out of order.

The script doesn't provide much of a plot. It captures a slice of life in a place where, for some, life has come to a standstill. What unites the characters, chiefly, is their impending eviction. The hotel is slated for demolition, and the refuge they call home will soon be gone.

Thirty or so years ago, Playhouse intriguingly staged this play in the lobby of an actual old hotel that was torn down soon after. Wilson's recurring theme of cultural decay, summed up in the line "Every city in America used to be one of the most beautiful cities in America," was profoundly illustrated by the lavishly doomed surroundings.

There isn't the same dramatic urgency on the Playhouse set. Though scenic designer Nick Mozak and properties designer Katherine Gering have created a richly detailed environment, the acting falls short of having a truly vintage 1970s feel.

The two acts of "The Hot L Baltimore" come off as back-to-back episodes of a sitcom pilot, which might explain why producer Norman Lear ("All in the Family" and "The Jeffersons") adapted it into a short-lived ABC sitcom in 1975.

Among the hotel's residents whose lives and histories are too thinly sketched is Courtney Oliver's April. Her jaded and ribald asides get a majority of the laughs. Tracie Hansom's Suzy, another foul-mouthed, freewheeling prostitute, has a few good minutes stirring up the pot.

Woven through this tapestry of curmudgeons, johns, hustlers and desk clerks is "Girl," a hippie insomniac who dreamily hopes for the world to be a better place. A dose of caffeine couldn't hurt Bussy Gower's take on the role as she vacantly meanders through the lobby, being bummed out by the cynics.

It's interesting to contrast this hard-bitten, joyless script with the play that won Wilson the Pulitzer Prize seven years later. Now in its final weekend at Theatre Memphis, "Talley's Folly" also depicts characters steeped in the bitterness of an age, but with a lyrical stroke that doesn't make you want to take up smoking afterward.

‘The Hot L Baltimore’

Performances continue through Oct. 14 at Playhouse on the Square, 66 S. Cooper. Shows are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 14. Tickets are $22-$35. Call 901-726-4656.

© 2012 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 1

amanwithaplan writes:

I went and saw this play the past weekend. I agree with the writer's opinion. It was somewhat interesting and kind of funny at times (although the guy behind me seemed to be looking at any opportunity to let off a guffawing laugh at any hint of comedy).

The actress who played "girl," I thought was the worse. I wasn't sure who she was, and she liked to react prematurely to the action.

I did like the older lady and the girl who had bought farm land in the salt fields of Utah.

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