The Hot L Baltimore | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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The Hot L Baltimore


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The Hot L Baltimore, Raven Theatre.

Messy, fragmented, and no more resolved than real life, Lanford Wilson's 1973 Pulitzer winner is a slice of sympathy for life's underdogs. It's also a casebook ensemble show, a portrait of the drifters and dreamers, misfits and refugees who people a once-famous hotel, now a flophouse doomed by the wrecker's ball. And out of such dross Wilson spins gold. As the denizens camp out in the seedy lobby, engaged in overlapping crises and conversations, a kind of mosaic plot accumulates, with Wilson clearly preferring the strugglers, like the prostitutes whom life hasn't hardened, over the shirkers, like the kid who too easily gives up his dream of finding his grandfather.

Essential to The Hot L Baltimore is a spontaneity and growing emotional solidarity that turns these dozen strangers into a surrogate family--a centripetal theme to balance the centrifugal action. Though enlivened by strong individual work (especially from Deb Seigel, Stephanie Manglaras, and Heather Prete), Scott Shallenbarger's staging, intentionally or not, reinforces the residents' isolation more than their connections.

The actors need to pull back from their characters' eccentricities and look harder for the parallels Wilson is pursuing. Too many performances get too little support, which inevitably forces the actors to push their parts too hard. Another problem is the indeterminate sense of time. Very much a product of its era, The Hot L Baltimore is no universal pageant. Placing it in the present without any updating makes it seem as cut off as the performances.

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