Sunday, November 01, 2015

Hot L Baltimore

The T. Schreiber Studio and Theatre is one of the undersung jewels of New York City theatre. Year after year, T. Schreiber presents solid productions, often featuring long-time director-teacher Terry Schreiber's students in some of the roles. For a tiny sliver of the price of a Broadway ticket, you can see top-notch productions of important plays with excellent casts.

In front: Stephanie Seward, Anna Holbrook, Alexandra Hellquist
 In back: Philip Rosen, Peter Judd
Photo: Bob Degus
Even more underappreciated is playwright Lanford Wilson. He tends to be ignored when people assemble lists of "great American playwrights," yet his body of work is superb. His four-decade career includes Balm in Gilead, The Rimers of Eldritch, Fifth of July, Talley's Folly, and Book of Days. He was recognized during his lifetime, with three Tony Award nominations, the Pulitzer Prize, the Drama Desk Vernon Rice Award, a New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, an Obie Award, the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award for a Master American Dramatist, and the Artistic Achievement Award from the New York Innovative Theatre Awards. So why doesn't he make top 10 or even top 50 lists? I've been trying to come up with a theory, and I've had no luck. But I do know this: it is an unacceptable oversight to leave him out. He is a major American playwright, and indeed one of the greats.

The Hot L Baltimore (1973) was Wilson's first major hit, running over 1,000 performances Off-Broadway. A plotless slice-of-life, the play catches the denizens of a rundown hotel as they deal with the life-changing news that they have a month to move out. The hotel is to be torn down.

The inhabitants include prostitutes, retirees with limited income, and other people down on their luck. On George Allison's fabulous set, wearing Mary Cann's just-right costumes, and in the hands of an terrific cast smoothly directed by Peter Jensen, they all come vividly to life. Suzy (vibrantly played by the fearless Jill Bianchini) still dreams of love and looks for it in seriously wrong places. April (Stephanie Seward, ably anchoring the ensemble) has few illusions--yet she has retained the ability to enjoy life as it is. The retired waitress, Millie (the lovely Anna Holbrook), has a peaceful relationship to life by day; she accepts her sixth sense, keeps tracks of ghosts, and tells stories of her past. By night, however, she is lost. Jackie (the convincing Lisa Sobin) wants a better life for herself and her not-quite-all-there brother, Jamie (Philip Rosen in a subtle and sad performance). And the character called only "Girl" lives in denial, dreaming of long train trips and trying to find meaning in her dead-end life. Other characters include the staff of the hotel and more tenants; all contribute to the mosaic that is The Hot L Baltimore.

Because of Wilson's brilliance, our brief visit with these people reveals their histories, their hearts, and their futures. We know that the demolition of the hotel will crush some of them and that others will find a way to get by. We know that they will all lose the sense of neighborhood and even family that this dilapidated hotel lobby has provided.

Yet The Hot L Baltimore is in many ways a joyful play, and an extremely funny one. And while little happens, it is completely satisfying. By the end, our time in the lobby has introduced us to some wonderful (and not-so-wonderful) people, shown us an entire world, entertained us, and broke our hearts.

The alumni of T. Schreiber Studio include Edward Norton, Maria Bello, Peter Sarsgaard, Debra Jo Rupp, Annabella Sciorra, Julie Halston, Zoe Kravitz, David Greenspan, and Jonny Orsini. Beside the joy of seeing a strong performance of a classic American play, you may also catch one of tomorrow's stars today.

(fifth row, press ticket)

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