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Hot L Baltimore

Theatre Review by Howard Miller

Jill Bianchini
Photo by Bob Degus

When Lanford Wilson's Obie and Drama Critics Circle Award-winning Hot L Baltimore began its three-year Off Broadway run in 1973, the homeless population across the United States was on a steady rise, so that it would become a significant feature of the urban landscape during the decade. That image haunts the play's current revival at the Gloria Maddox Theatre. The once chic Hotel Baltimore, which, however temporarily, serves as the home for a group of society's misfits, is slated to be demolished, and the denizens of the shabby lodgings must move out.

You can't help wondering where they will all wind up —the prostitutes, the gently delusional, and even the argumentative curmudgeons —all of the lost souls who hole up in their individual rooms and periodically convene to the lobby, their collective gathering place where they become a tenuous family.

There is the exuberant Suzy (Jill Bianchini), who denies she is a hooker ("I'm a friendly person. It just gets me in trouble!") and her sex worker companions, the wisecracking April (Stephanie Seward) and the nameless "Girl" (Alexandra Hellquist), who tries on and discards various aliases at the drop of a hat and who talks a mile a minute about everything and nothing. You sense she lives just this side of a full-blown panic that she keeps at bay by her chatter.

Seated on the sofa is sweet Millie (Anna Holbrook), a friendly sort of mother figure to the younger ones, someone who sees ghosts and refers to herself as "batty." And in the corner is the elderly, grumpy, and confused Mr. Morse (Peter Judd), who complains constantly about the quality of basic services. There is also the tough-talking schemer Jackie (Lisa Sobin) and her intimidated brother Jamie (Philip Rosen). Others come and go on various errands: Mrs. Bellotti (Wendy Mae Shelton), who has the unhappy duty of removing her mentally ill son's belongings after he has been kicked out, and Paul Granger III (Shane Rodney Lacoss), who is trying to track down the whereabouts of his missing grandfather.

As members of the audience, we are privileged eavesdroppers. We never get to know anyone very well, but we are nonetheless sitting in that lobby, like Millie's ghosts, taking it all in —the little personal stories, the arguments, the overlapping dialog. That is what Lanford Wilson has given us with Hot L Baltimore, a play that reveals much about a certain segment of the population, even if it deliberately fails to satisfy any desire we might have for the normal arc of drama, including a resolution.

By design, Hot L Baltimore is an ensemble piece, and director Peter Jensen does a fine job of maneuvering the 15 cast members in their various permutations. The actors all do quite well with their respective roles, with Ms. Holbrook, Ms. Bianchini, and the brassy Ms. Seward strutting around in her "silk Dacron kimono" as the standouts. George Allison has provided a detailed set design in which the hotel lobby, the front desk, and the workspace behind it all give off an air that really helps us see what "Girl" says of the place, that it "used to be the most exclusive medium-sized hotel on the Eastern Seaboard railroad line." The only thing missing is the hotel sign with its burned-out "e" that gives the play its title.

Hot L Baltimore
Through November 21
Gloria Maddox Theatre at The T. Schreiber Studio, 151 West 26th Street, 7th Floor, between 6th and 7th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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