An early, heartfelt misfire by Paula Vogel given new vitality.
By Joel Benjamin
The Baltimore Waltz is Paula Vogel’s (How I Learned to Drive) unsettling fever dream/comic fantasy, her way of coping with the AIDs death of her beloved brother. By reversing the roles, giving a bizarre, incurable disease to a promiscuous Anna rather than her gay brother Carl, Vogel was able to channel all her frustrations and anger into a bizarre, picaresque tale that centers on a grand tour of Europe, and includes references to the film “The Third Man,” stuffed animals and medical chicanery.
Written in the Eighties when AIDS weighed heavily on the Gay and arts communities—often overlapping groups—and when guilt about surviving was rampant, Ms. Vogel let her ardor fail her artistry when writing The Baltimore Waltz, writing a heartfelt, but disorganized play.
Anna (Heather Cunningham) is an elementary school teacher who has contracted ATD (Acquired Toilet Disease) from her students. In search of a cure she and her brother Carl (Ricardo Rust) venture on a trip to Europe in which each meet anonymous strangers, all played by Greg Oliver Bodine who also is the Third Man/Harry Lime and the garishly cartoonish Doctor who holds the key to the cure for ATD.
Feeling that she has nothing to lose, Anna lets loose and seduces someone in each city they visit (Paris, Amsterdam, Vienna). Carl carries a stuffed rabbit which seems to be a secret emblem, allowing him to meet men who also carry stuffed rabbits. Carl and Anna go their separate ways, each indulging in their whims: sex, sightseeing, trying to find a cure. Yet, they clearly love each other.
Carl meets with the Harry Lime type. Carl also finally finds the illustrious doctor who has the medicine that will cure his sister and he turns out to be Dr. Strangelove, complete with involuntary arm gestures and grimacing.
In the end, tragedy cannot be averted and the whole façade comes crashing down.
Although this production, directed by Peter Zinn, could use swifter pacing, the three actors have a firm grasp on their characters that will only get stronger as the show runs. The set by Jack and Rebecca Cunningham is a bare hospital room with curtained screens moved about to indicate different locations. Carl and Ann wear sleepwear while the third actor gets a bit more variation to denote his different characters. Viviane Galloway designed the costumes. Videos of phony PSAs for ATD and travelogues are shown on an upstage monitor.
Considering all the well-known actors who have appeared in this play over the years—Cherry Jones, Joe Mantello, Kristen Johnston, David Marshall Grant—the message of The Baltimore Waltz must have a strong appeal, but its message has dimmed over the two decades since it was first staged. This production makes a vivid case for this early Vogel work.
Photos: RIc Sechrest
The Baltimore Waltz – November 8 – 23, 2013
The Underground Theater
64 East 4th St. (between 3rd & 2nd Aves.)
New York, NY
Tickets: 866-811-4111 or www.web.ovationtix.com
More Information: www.retroproductions.org
Running Time: 90 minutes