By staging Lanford Wilson's The Hot L Baltimore in the lobby of the Barth Hotel, director Terry Dodd has arranged one of the sweetest, smartest, loveliest evenings of theater you'll ever enjoy in Denver. The Barth is home to many indigent seniors suffering physical or mental disabilities; it's one of a handful of places operated by a private nonprofit called Senior Housing Options. This production is intended as a fundraiser, and it's the second time Dodd has presented The Hot L Baltimore here. Seventeen years ago, the same play raised $17,000 for an air-conditioning system.
Do you remember the chapter in Owl at Home, the kid's book by Arnold Lobel, in which Owl sits down to make tearwater tea by thinking about all the things that make him sad? The list that follows is commonplace but resonant, a group of small things that stand for all the losses wrought by time and indifference: pencils too stubby to use, spoons dropped behind the stove and lost, broken-legged chairs, stopped clocks, songs that can't be sung any more because no one remembers their words. For me, that story encapsulates the feeling at the heart of The Hot L Baltimore, which is a kind of extended tone poem about life in a seedy hotel filled with society's rejects (or, as the script has it, flotsam and jetsam): hookers, dreamers, drifters, a wise one-time waitress, a kvetchy old man, a young man haunting the lobby in search of his own past, and the low-wage desk clerks and managers who keep the place going. The nineteen-year-old Girl (that's what she calls herself, having tried and rejected several other names) who represents the soul of the piece has traveled all over the country and is in love with railroads; she grieves for their demise.
But if this description suggests a bloodless paeon to times past and lost places, let me reassure you that The Hot L Baltimore is also a very lively piece of theater, and although it was written in the early 1970s, it isn't at all dated. The intertwining stories keep us emotionally involved and the action humming along, and Wilson's technical innovations as a playwright — he frequently has two conversations going at once, or several sallies overlapping — work brilliantly to evoke a sense of connected and communal lives.
There couldn't be a better setting for this play than the cozy, elegantly proportioned lobby of the more-than-century-old Barth, or a script better suited to the environmental approach that Dodd has chosen. The playing area is no more brightly lit than the rest of the room, and as a result you simply don't feel the separation from the actors that's usual in a theater. Obviously, there is no fourth wall. And although no one in the cast ever addresses us directly, sometimes a non-actor becomes part of the performance — as when a resident walks through the scene and over to the elevator, or another delightedly applauds a tearful onstage reconciliation between two of the hookers.
The cast ranges from good to excellent, with some of the best performances in the smaller or less obviously dramatic roles. Eric Hansen, for instance, is a fine, matter-of-factly unobtrusive desk clerk; Kathryn Gray gives us a bossy, clipped Mrs. Oxenham, self-importance oozing from every pore of her body; and Judy Phelan-Hill, a repeat performer from the production seventeen years ago, walks back and forth silently several times as a woman carrying out her schizophrenic son's belongings, breaking our hearts with nothing but the hopeless slump of her shoulders. Joey Wishnia is perfect as cranky Mr. Morse, and so is Joe Wilson as Mr. Katz. Robin Wallace makes the Girl charming and flitty, though sometimes I wish she'd listen more to the other characters; Brian J. Brooks manages to suggest all kinds of depth and complexity without saying a whole lot as the young man searching for his grandfather. And Patty Mintz Figel, another repeat from that earlier production, centers the action as wise Millie, who understands ghosts and their attachments to places. There are also interesting performances from Laura Lounge, Brian Kusic and Catherine di Bella, and I hugely enjoyed Kimberly Nicole's sashaying Suzy — though it's hard to believe any whore this beautiful wouldn't be working in a higher-class joint.
No other local director has Dodd's understanding of place and its effect on people, and no one else can suggest depth and complexity in quite the same quietly unpretentious way. This production enlarges our sense of what theater is and the subtle, intriguing ways in which it can speak to us. You don't want to miss it.