It’s rare that I leave a theatre completely ambivalent. I mean, I almost forgot that I saw Steppenwolf’s production of The Hot L Baltimore a few hours after returning home yesterday.
“It’s already 7pm? What the hell did I do today? Oh, yeah: I saw that play about the people in that hotel.”
While I have some points of contention with the piece, which I’ll get to, I’m sure Lanford Wilson’s play, when done right, is an atmospheric, darkly humorous commentary on the faded urban landscape and decaying American dream. Marginalized people find community in a decaying hotel lobby — a hotel that’s soon set for destruction. Lives are in peril, and escapism and avoidance become coping mechanisms.
The piece holds loads of potential for strong ensemble work complemented by a director — and scenic designer — with vision.
But in Steppenwolf’s production, directed by Tina Landau, I was left completely cold. From the bad character wigs to the odd, stagey line readings, nothing felt genuine. And actors whose work I’ve admired in other productions just didn’t do anything for me — such as the young Allison Torem, who made a very strong impression in Profile’s Kid Sister. But here she’s giving a performance (as “the girl,” a 19 year-old transient hooker) too similar to her Kid Sister counterpart, full of wide-eyed urgency and slurred line readings, and it doesn’t work. She also seems to have developed the annoying habit of visibly anticipating her next line without first listening to what her scene partners are saying.
And, really: there seemed to be an overall lack of listening and nuance in the performances, resulting in some disjointed ensemble work. Which is surprising coming from Steppenwolf.
The brightest spot is de’Adre Aziza as April, the sassy hooker who’s been there, done that and has the t-shirt. She has the best lines and delivers them with zest. But we’ve seen this character before, right?
Which brings me to this point: I think there are problems with Wilson’s play. Based on what I saw yesterday afternoon, there really doesn’t seem to be any dramatic pull. Yes, the wrecking ball is coming, but no one seems too concerned. A guy (Samuel Taylor in a bad blond wig) shows up to find his missing grandfather who may have resided in the hotel at some point, and no one seems to remember him, or really care — except for the girl (Torem), but that’s because she seems to have OCD and this is her next thing to obsess about. He sticks around for a while, and then takes off. There’s a random ghost who sings badly arranged old-timey tunes, and an old woman in the hotel who we’re told can speak with ghosts (Molly Regan, demonstrating her sweet soprano and saddled with another bad wig) joins him in song. A hooker gets naked (Kate Arrington).
The most compelling storyline is that of hot-headed hustler Jackie (Alana Arenas) and her painfully introverted brother Jamie (Namir Smallwood) who have epic dreams that seem doomed from the start. But even this storyline doesn’t feel as fleshed out as it should.
Wilson weaves a number of minor plot lines that hang there.
And then the play just sort of ends.
I know I’m missing something, because Wilson’s play received all sorts of accolades and awards when it premiered Off-Broadway in 1973. But, from what I saw yesterday, I just felt “eh.” Maybe it’s the play, or maybe it’s Steppenwolf’s flat production? I don’t know, but I know it just didn’t work for me.
“The Hot L Baltimore” plays through May 29 in Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. More info here >