The Hot L Baltimore Steppenwolf Theatre Company
"Here's to the losers," Frank Sinatra used to sing. "Bless them all."
That pretty much sums up the work of Lanford Wilson, who died March 24, at the age of 73. Wilson's plays teem with desperate, downtrodden margin dwellers—prostitutes, drifters, has-beens, the shit-out-of-luck—and his palpable affection for them is his most striking, most winning attribute. Wilson comes across a lot like the unnamed 19-year-old call girl in The Hot L Baltimore, his 1973 hit. Fascinated by the derelicts in her midst, she can't help feeling an almost overwhelming sympathy for them. "I want everyone to have everything," she says. So, I suspect, did the playwright.
Now being revived at Steppenwolf Theatre, in a production directed by Tina Landau, The Hot L Baltimore unfolds in the lobby of a formerly fancy hotel that's gone completely to seed. James Schuette's fantastically detailed bilevel set perfectly evokes the decayed splendor of the place, with its stained wallpaper and grand staircase leading to squalid rooms. The people who inhabit these quarters include three prostitutes, two aging eccentrics, and a transient brother-sister pair (he's a bit slow). We also meet the relatives of two former residents—one was evicted, the other has gone missing—and three hotel employees whose jobs entail a lot of refereeing. The building, we learn at the outset, has been slated for demolition.
If you squint and tilt your head a certain way, the play can look a little like Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, which also lays bare the illusions of a confederation of failures, or Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, which depicts a little world just before the wrecking ball drops. But Wilson wasn't a merciless truth-seeker like O'Neill, and his compassion lacked Chekhov's insightfulness and subtlety. In The Hot L Baltimore, he settles for sentiment, cliche (not one, not two, but three hookers with hearts of gold), and the kind of amiable quirkiness that made All in the Family producer Norman Lear think the premise could work as a sitcom. (He was wrong: the 1975 TV show held on for just 13 episodes.)
Of course, The Hot L Baltimore also calls to mind Wilson's own Balm in Gilead, the nighthawks-in-a-diner piece that helped cement Steppenwolf's reputation when John Malkovich gave it a storied staging back in 1980.
But this particular Hot L owes more to another Steppenwolf show: Landau's 2002 version of William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life. As she did then, Landau offers a highly atmospheric interpretation here—flooding the set with actors before the show and during intermission, having them go about their somewhat distracting business in the visible second-floor rooms when they're not in a scene in the lobby below, and hitting them with a spotlight whenever they say something especially revealing, so as to showcase the remark with the theatrical equivalent of a Highlighter pen.
Landau's take works despite all the heavy-handedness, thanks in part to the fruitful tension she sets up between a haunting, autumnal mood and the cast's ardent, ebullient performances. Landau creates the former by adding a ghost—a fedora-sporting dandy who silently stalks the rooms, reminding us of the hotel in its heyday—and frequent bits of melancholy song sung by cast members. These touches provide some minor-key shading along with intimations of the place's looming destruction.
And yet the show isn't at all dour. Wilson wanted a cacophony of overlapping voices, and the cast oblige with lively performances conveying the characters' never-say-die resilience. That resilience comes through clearest in the weapons-grade feistiness of de'Adre Aziza as one of the whores, the I-got-dreams-goddamnit! fierceness of Alana Arenas as an impoverished schemer, the stubborn dignity of Yasen Peyankov and Molly Regan as the establishment's elderly tenants, and the steady calm of Jon Michael Hill as the night desk clerk.
The play's celebration of indomitability is its most moving aspect and Wilson's legacy. The future looks as dire as ever at the end of The Hot L Baltimore, but it still closes with one character—a prostitute named April—teaching another to dance. "Come on, they're gonna tear up the dance floor in a minute; the bulldozers are barking at the door," she tells her hesitant student. Then she calls out to the night clerk, who controls the radio knobs, saying, "Turn it up, Bill, or I'll break your arm. Turn it up!"