Theater Review – Not so ‘Hot L Baltimore’

“Hot L Baltimore” was hailed as groundbreaking in the early 1970s (but then again, so was “Maude”). When seen today, one wonders what all the fuss was about. Walden Theatre struggles to resuscitate this severely dated clunker for its season opening.

Written in 1973, this clumsily conceived play is set in a once-grand hotel slated for demolition as part of urban renewal. The hotel lost its glamour when the railroad stopped coming through, and is now a flophouse for flotsam and jetsam. The plot device uniting these diverse residents is their reaction to eviction notices. At first angered, the residents soon settle into blithe indifference and go on flopping as if nothing has changed their world. They’re stuck in an eddy, these cast-offs, but they still have impossible dreams.

As the strains of Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” fade and the lights come up, the bedlam begins. Bill (Joey Coe), the night clerk, and a character known as the “Girl” (Stephanie Shacklette) because she can’t settle on a name for herself, engage in mind-numbing banter in the hotel’s lobby. The Girl is a 19-year-old hooker dressed as a schoolgirl with a voice that makes nails scraped along a chalkboard mellisonant. She is meant to be annoying yet lovable. However, Shacklette fails to breathe life into the Girl, leaving her merely shrill and insufferable.

Other residents gather in the lobby, talking at each other in jumbled patois. This production could use a good dialect coach. We’re in Baltimore, yet we hear every accent but. For instance, Mrs. Belotti, played entertainingly by Madeline Marchal, sounds more Slavic than Italian, as her name would suggest. Other characters are played with a mixture of New York and Southern accents, none of them convincing.

Like a Norman Lear sitcom, events unfold with utter predictability. (Indeed, Lear couldn’t even make this dud succeed when he adapted it for a short-lived TV series.) When Mr. Morse (David Laws) and Jamie (Danny Koenig) sit down for a game of checkers, we know that the game board and its pieces will end up flying through the air. When Jackie (Courtney Miller) goes up to help Mr. Morse close his window, we know we’ll soon hear Mr. Morse scream, “I’ve been robbed!”

Most of the actors seemingly compete for the limelight with one another rather than play off of each other (with Koenig and Anna Byers being the notable exceptions). In one scene, Miller milks the act of eating an apple into a slapstick-like exaggeration by loudly chomping and mugging while other actors are talking. Leah Raidt overplays April Green, the aging hooker, as she tells jokes with all the sensitivity of Rusty Warren, needlessly emphasizing the double entendres as if to say, “Get it?”

The director’s notes indicate that this high-school aged cast is up to the task of handling these mature roles. However, the performance shows that Walden Theatre has overreached this time. Eventually, the play may prove a good exercise in the actors’ progress to the professional stage.

The play teaches that you must follow your dreams, but none of these characters does. This premise holds much promise and room for exploration. Unfortunately, both the play and this production fail to reach their dreams themselves.