Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Baltimore Waltz"

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note: entire contents copyright 2000 by Larry Stark

"The Baltimore Waltz"

by Paula Vogel
Directed by Nora Hussey
Associate Director Jenny Caplan

Set Design by Jenny Caplan
Lighting Designs by Stacey Bubolz
Sound Design by Nora Hussey
Costume Design by Jenny Caplan
Stage Manager Cameron Salisbury

Anna.................................................Alicia Kahn
Carl..................................................Kent French
Third Man......................................Derek Nelson

I learned early (only took me three or four years) that it's not a good idea to re-review a new production, especially if I liked the show in its previous incarnation. It's not that I "know too much" about the show, but more that my mind can't help expecting the same experience, so things that are Different in a new production seem, undeservedly, "wrong". And for that reason this is more a Cricket's Notebook than a review. I kept thinking, all through the Wellesley Summer Theatre's "Baltimore Waltz": "why am I not happy watching all this excellent work!" The problem had to be with me.

The good work out at Wellesley lay in making everyone believably human. When the woman examined for "Acquired Toilet Disease" asks her doctor for a simple explanation, he quickly mumbles a lot of impenetrable medical jargon, apparently embarrassed by the deadly implications of what he's saying. And his insistence that "There's Always hope!" only emphasizes those deadly implications. Brother and sister bond again in their meander through Europe as closely as they did sleeping in the same bed before growing out of "mixed infants" innocence --- which only makes their arguments all the more wounding. All the other people they encounter are played by Derek Nelson as unique individuals, funny or poignant depending on the situation. And Alicia Kahn and Kent French as brother and sister --- playing the entire show barefoot and in bedclothes, donning perfunctory coats for specific re-enactments --- are, always, people.

But is that such a good idea in this play? I watched the play thinking of the naive audience who comes to it without any previous contact with the play, and without any experience of the Reagan Era AIDS controversies, wondering if any of them could possibly "get it". In my mind, unless this play has fangs, it's a failure.

The play has a kind of Brechtian "presentational" flavor: scenes are announced with flatly satirical titles that add bite. The sister, embarking on her first experience of Europe, is first seen puzzling over an omni-lingual phrase-book hoping to get along in several countries, but the first confrontation with incomprehensible language is in that Baltimore clinic, the language involved medical nomenclature, and the bottom-line meaning a sentence of death. In a later scene, the present, past, and future tenses of the verb "to leave" are titled, while brother complains that his sister leaves him every night to seek casual sex.

And that's another peculiarity of this show: a sexual reversal. It's sister in this fantasmagorical satire who faces quick death from an AIDS-like disease. She is described as in a seventh stage, after Kubler-Ross' six stages of dying : attempting to hold death at bay through sexual pleasure, or as she says "Intending to fuck my brains out." It's her brother, throughout most of the play, who tries through a peculiar replaying of "The Third Man" to find an illicit drug that might yet offer hope of a possible cure, who commiserates and deals and empathizes with his dying sibling --- but then, inexplicably, dies. The whole play, then, from the first talk of language to the death, is an inverted fantasy in which sis leads a heterosexual parallel of her gay brother's attempt to stay alive as long as possible. This play was born out of white-hot rage against the popular indifference toward the awfulness of the AIDS crisis. I think it ought to have fangs.

Does that mean the Wellesley Summer Theatre's tender, chewy humanity failed? Does it mean that Director Nora Hussey lead her cast down a wrong path toward the show's truth? Or does it mean that this reviewer's past experience with the show ruined his eyes for seeing what they added to the text?

Go see the play yourselves, and then you tell me.


"The Baltimore Waltz" (till 29 June)
Wellesley College Theatre, WELLESLEY

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide