Writers excavate the marrow of life in order to create their fictional universes, and thus are sometimes required to mine their own marrow for their art. So it was with Paula Vogel, who lost her brother Carl — a witty, sophisticated and elegant gentleman, to judge from the instructions he left for his obsequies (set forth in Keegan’s playbill) — to our Great Plague. She wrote The Baltimore Waltz.
The loss of her brother being the grief that dare not speak its name, she sought to turn it into a raucous comedy. Ann (Brianna Letourneau), a first-grade teacher, is suffering from a terminal case of Acquired Toilet Disease (ATD) — which she caught by using the kiddies’ toilet in her classroom instead of the big-girl’s toilet in the faculty lounge. She decides to fulfill a lifelong dream and travel to Europe with her brother Carl (Michael Innocenti), a poly-lingual sophisticate whose knowledge of art and history will assure that she will never be out of context. While in Europe, she intends to fulfill another lifelong dream: to do the horizontal mambo with every human male she can recruit.
They go from France to Holland to Germany, and so do we. Carl introduces us to the great art galleries and cathedrals while Ann does some serious mambo-ing (all mambo-ees, and everyone else, are played by Ray Ficca) on the single boxy bed which dominates the boxy set (Matthew J. Keenan). But when Carl supplements the voyage by showing us slides, and they all seem to be of Baltimore, and more particularly many seem to be from Johns Hopkins Hospital, we realize that it’s not Ann who’s sick, but Carl, and it’s not ATD that he’s got.
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The conceit is both breathtaking and heartbreaking. Alas, the execution is considerably less so. This is Vogel’s responsibility, not Keegan’s. Indeed, Keegan’s production appears to square well with the playwright’s intent.
The problem is that Vogel has packed this play with incident, most of which get tiresome after a while. There is the mysterious contact which Carl has made with a mysterious guy, the purpose of which appears to be to exchange their stuffed bunnies. There is a search for a reclusive medico in Vienna, who is reputed to have an off-the-books cure for ATD. There is Ann’s incessant coupling, doubly difficult to take given that she and Carl share the same bed (there is no suggestion of incest).
The text calls for all the people Carl and Ann meet to be over the top, and to that purpose Keegan and director Susan Marie Rhea have called in the best over-the-top actor in Washington, Ray Ficca. Ficca’s over-the-top repertoire runs from Christopher Lloyd-style disheveled to Peter Lorre-style sinister, and he can make the transition from one to the other in about four seconds. But too much over the top is — well, it’s over the top. By the time he turns himself into a Strangelovian scientist with a taste for human urine, the bell has rung on this play.
The Baltimore Waltz
closes February 9, 2019
Details and tickets
Innocenti and Letourneau turn in their usual fine work. Over the last four or five years Letourneau has become one of the area’s better actors; it has been a pleasure to watch. As for Innocenti, the role is right in his wheelhouse. He is both charismatic and energetic as the doomed brother and conveys a sense of mischief too.
None of the subplots are resolved in any satisfying way, and by the time Carl’s true condition is revealed to us, it comes as a jolt, though we knew it all along. In fact, it is impossible to draw any sort of relationship between the manic subplots and the somber reality in which the play is grounded. (Ann’s many [heterosexual] couplings may reflect a sense of unfairness over the fact that AIDS targeted the gay community; we now know — as was not commonly known when Vogel wrote the play in 1989 — that it can be spread through heterosexual contact as well.)
“A myth is a public dream,” Joseph Campbell once wrote. “A dream is a private myth.” The Baltimore Waltz is conceived in a way which might have allowed it to join the other great myths we use to help us apprehend the Endless No, but it is not there yet. Mythmaking is a task reserved for our greatest writers – Virgil for Eurydice, for example, or in our own day, Tony Kushner for Angels in America. I hope yet to see one come from Ms. Vogel.
The Baltimore Waltz by Paula Vogel, produced by Keegan Theatre . Directed by Susan Marie Rhea, assisted by Nikki Hoffpauir . Featuring Brianna Letourneau, Michael Innocenti, and Ray Ficca . Set design by Matthew J. Keenan . Sound design by Niusha Nawab . Properties and set dressing design by Cindy Landrum Jacobs . Lighting design by G. Ryan Smith . Costume design by Alison Samantha Johnson . Original projection images by Eric Starbenk . Lisa Nathans is the dialect coach . Clarke Whitehead is the dramaturg . Alexis Graves is the stage manager . Produced by Keegan Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.