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David Marshall Grant and Kristen Johnston
in The Baltimore Waltz
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
It's hardly uncommon for family members to respond to the death of a beloved relative with some version of the thought, "Why wasn't I the one?" What's less common is for someone wrestling with the troubled notion, which implies survival guilt, to compose a play as a form of grief therapy. In fact, there may be only one person who's gone to that painful yet psychologically healing length: Paula Vogel.

The play is The Baltimore Waltz, which was first produced by The Circle Repertory Theatre in 1992, having been written just after Vogel's brother Carl died of AIDS-related causes in 1988. The 80-minute elegy-cum-expiation is now revived in a lovely and inevitably heart-rending mounting as part of the playwright's Signature Theatre Company season. The one-act is the best work we have about survival guilt; it may also be one of very few on that dicey subject, but this in no way detracts from Carl's sister's accomplishment.

The craftiness of the play lies in Vogel's response to the "Why wasn't I the one?" query. In The Baltimore Waltz, the sister is indeed the one afflicted, and the brother is the impending survivor. It's Anna (Kristen Johnston), a grade-school teacher with a brother named Carl, who's handed an ATD (Acquired Toilet Disorder) diagnosis as the play begins; she's contracted the fictional disease through sharing a toilet with her young charges. How clever of Vogel to launch this celebration of her brother's life by giving a fatal condition to a character standing in for the playwright; how touching that she found a tangible way to keep him alive for herself, as she has often claimed he will be whenever the comedy/drama is performed.

Vogel has stage-version Carl take Anna on a tour of Europe, this the realization of an unrealized trip that the actual Carl wanted his sister to take with him. In the play, the declared reason for the trip is to locate a Viennese urologist, Dr. Todesrocheln, who's experimenting with a cure tied to drinking one's own urine. (A rough translation of "todesrocheln" is "death rattle," an indication of the often darkly humorous style of this fictional memoir.) Packing their bags, Carl and Anna head toward Austria but not before making stops along the way in France, The Netherlands and Germany.

The journey is episodic, satirical, and fueled by frenzy. During it, Anna indulges her desire to sleep (read: "act out") with as many men as she can, at least on one occasion when Carl is also in the bed. The hilarious stereotypes that she encounters include a French waiter (Jeremy Webb, who also plays the doctors giving Anna the bad news), a German virgin (Webb again) and a Dutchman with a dike-saving story to tell (an even wilder-eyed Webb). Catering to Anna's needs and sometimes absenting himself when her needs don't include him, Carl visits museums and, carrying a stuffed rabbit wherever he goes, has at least one homosexual encounter: He and a stranger also armed with rabbit (Webb yet again) euphemistically pat each other's pets.

Europe and its hotel rooms are conjured by a few beds and tables that set designer Neil Patel includes. Director Mark Brokaw dispatches stagehands in white coats to cart the all-purpose furniture about the hospital-like surroundings, which feature traveling hospital curtains. Jan Hartley's projections of the Eiffel Tower, etc. serve as shorthand to suggest landmark locales. In one interlude, Carl insists on showing slides of the journey; most of the photographs, as Vogel's stage directions require, are of Baltimore spots, underscoring the bittersweet point that the playwright never did accompany brother Carl to Europe. Additional atmosphere is created by sound designers David Van Tieghem and Jill B.C. DuBoff, who play evocative tunes like the drinking song from The Student Prince and, at one critical moment, Johann Strauss II's "Emperor Waltz."

Presumably, Anna and her brother don't hasten to Dr. Todesrocheln and his potential cure because considerate Carl wants his doomed sister to enjoy as many sights and sites as possible before getting down to business in Vienna, but what Vogel doesn't skirt is the arbitrariness that dogs her sketches. Still, there are enough truthful and/or funny moments to keep the funereal soufflé from collapsing. The best running gag is Vogel's pilfering lines and situations from Carol Reed's 1949 movie The Third Man. Recalling the film's narrative, in which black-market drugs are a plot point, Vogel introduces the flick's sulking heavy, Harry Lime -- played by, yes, Jeremy Webb. (FYI: In The Third Man, leading-lady Alida Valli plays a character called Anna.) Vogel also raids Stanley Kubrick's 1964 classic Doctor Strangelove, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb for another mad-scientist moment.

To help make The Baltimore Waltz fast-paced, delightful, and ultimately very moving, director Mark Brokaw -- who collaborated with Vogel on How I Learned to Drive and the more recent journey play The Long Christmas Ride Home -- has unleashed Kirsten Johnston, wearing costume designer Michael Krass's trench coat and slip, as Anna. In a busy year on local stages, Johnston has established her value as an actress who's natural as a sunbeam. In teaming her with David Marshall Grant, as ever a winning and cunning presence, and the up-and-coming, breathtakingly versatile Jeremy Webb, Brokaw continues to hit acting paydirt. The entire enterprise is as engaging as a melody in three-quarter time.

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