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The Hot L Baltimore

Tina Landau's production of Lanford WIlson's landmark play is full of strong directorial choices.

By Chicago
Kate Arrington and De'Adre Aziza
in The Hot L Baltimore
(© Michael Brosilow)
Kate Arrington and De'Adre Aziza
in The Hot L Baltimore
(© Michael Brosilow)
Tina Landau's production of Lanford Wilson's 1973 play The Hot L Baltimore, now being presented by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, will best be remembered -- for better and worse -- for her strong directorial choices, which substantially alter and sometimes overwhelm the landmark play.

To begin with, half of the cast are African-Americans, including those playing the Hotel Baltimore's staff: night clerk Bill Lewis (Jon Michael Hill), day clerk Mr. Katz (James Vincent Meredith), and manager Mrs. Oxenham (TaRon Patton). If Landau is making a statement through this non-traditional casting, especially given the play's 1973 time period when Civil Rights battles and Vietnam both were being fought, it isn't readily apparent.

Another defining aspect of the production is scenic designer James Schuette's towering, three-story set, which offers cut-away views of the second floor guest rooms, so we see Millie (Molly Regan), Mr. Morse (Yasen Peyankov), Suzy (Kate Arrington), and April (de'Adre Aziza) in their rooms, when they are not onstage. We also see them in bathrobes and underwear walking to and from the hotel's shared bathrooms, to little necessary effect.

Landau has also introduced a musical ghost: an elegantly-dressed man (Sean Allan Krill) of an earlier era, who glides wordlessly and at-will through the hotel corridors and rooms, unnoticed by others, softly crooning popular songs of the 1930's or 1940's as background music. Then, mid-way through Act II, he and Millie take focus for a full-out duet of "Stardust." There are other musical moments as well, among them Mrs. Belloti (Jacqueline Williams) singing a blues number in the box-filled room occupied by her son.

While Wilson's dialogue makes the characters and story elements readily apparent, Landau's decision to employ overlapping conversations -- which may have slice-of-life truth (especially in a large hotel lobby) -- robs some of the work's theatrical effectiveness. A few "big" speeches still stand out, especially with the lights dimmed around the character delivering the speech, but most of the dialogue is given equal weight throughout rather than delivered for impact. More problematically, Landau eschews the play's comedy.

Certain strengths of the play remain. For example, Millie, the retired waitress from a once-genteel southern family, remains the spiritual center with her instinctive second sight, and the prostitutes Suzy and especially April still prove to be warm and caring individuals. Most importantly, the Beckett-like attitude of all remains intact: despite an uncertain future, these individuals will go on.


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