The unruly brain and bad habits of a writer, actor, and grilled cheese sandwich-enthusiast.
“Now in Vienna there’s ten pretty women
There’s a shoulder where Death comes to cry
There’s a lobby with nine hundred windows
There’s a tree where the doves go to die”
– Leonard Cohen, “Take this Waltz,” I’m Your Man (1988)
As a former ‘80s kid/’90s teen, I remember how long the shadows of HIV and AIDS loomed over my adolescence. Teens are constantly told that theirs is the age to, for lack of a better term, get all their crazy out and have as much fun as possible before adulthood drop-kicks them into banality. Now an entire generation was being told that the fun was over before we even had the chance to take part. We eventually discovered this wasn’t the case, but being told your first sexual experience could lead to a slow, painful death tends to make most folks gun-shy.
It didn’t help matters that the people dying were people we knew. From local luminaries here in San Francisco to world-renowned celebs, it seemed at times that this was a plague capable of taking lives the way smallpox had. Paula Vogel was familiar with some of the lives lost, as one was that of her brother. She channeled her grief, as well as the public ignorance of the disease and virus, into The Baltimore Waltz, which was first performed at The Magic in 1992.
HIV/AIDS might not make headlines anymore – people infected are living longer, happier lives, whilst those in third-world countries are far enough away that the average American won’t give them a second thought – but there was a time it truly scared the hell out of all of us. As one of the “Legacy” plays for The Magic’s 50th anniversary, Baltimore Waltz serves as a satirical time capsule of that time.
Anna is a 1st grade teacher. She’s very good at her job and doesn’t ask for much. So imagine her surprise when she’s told she has ATD (Acquired Toilet Disease). Yes, it turns out sharing toilet seats is hazardous to one’s health.
Carl is Anna’s brother. He entertains the kids who come to the SF Public Library. At least he did, until his show became a bit too… risqué. With nothing better to do, he wastes no time running to Anna’s side after learning of her diagnosis.
Told she only has a short time to live, Anna is determined to “fuck [her] brains out” as often as possible. This leads to Carl suggesting the two finally take a Eurotrip to help her achieve that goal and, quite possibly, find an experimental cure for her disease.
Like the recent Marsh play, Holding the Edge by Elaine Magree, takes us back to the time when conjecture was easier to come by when the public thought of AIDS. As such, the idea of catching it from a toilet seat was something you’d regularly hear on schoolyards, barbershops, or in bars. But whereas Magree’s solo piece works with the benefit of hindsight, Vogel’s script feels specifically a product of its time. That’s not to say it’s bad, just that it and the characters’ knowledge (or lack thereof) of the illness dates it considerably. The power with which she wrote the script in the moment is still there, but that specific moment has passed.
Regardless of the setting, it falls to the actors to make the characters as real as they ever could have been. The results are a bit scattered. As Anna, Lauren English makes the wise decision to ground the character in reality, despite the cartoonish misadventures in which she finds herself. Patrick Alparone doesn’t seem to get as good a handle on Carl, doing well in earlier comedic scenes (his opening dismissal from the library is a highlight), but not English’s equal in the more dramatic moments. Being grounded is of little concern to Greg Jackson as “The Third Man” (a reference that becomes clear during one of the play’s final scenes). As a one-man ensemble, the majority of characters are broad “Eurotrash” caricatures borne out of any number of American sitcoms.
As directed by Jon Moscone (Full disclosure: I was once directed by Moscone for a Cal Shakes production), the production isn’t lacking for creative production value. Unfortunately, the play’s official site had no production stills as of this review, but designer Nina Ball and lighter Heather Gilbert’s set pieces are great to see in motion. Consisting primarily of an upstage set of hospital curtains that never disappear (hint, hint), the two create and intriguing dreamscape that it’s easy to get lost in. Theodore Hulsker’s sounds are mostly effective, but one choice in particular irked me. As I mentioned in my recent reviews for Crowded Fire’s You for Me for You and Shotgun’s Nora, Bay Area sound designers seem currently obsessed with injecting a David Lynchian low-frequency droning noise into their productions. Hulsker (mercifully) only uses it once early on, but I’ve heard it so many times now that it’s becoming an annoying trope – like the “Inception ‘bwong’” that’s been heard in trailers for the past few years.
As is often the case with satire, one person’s taste won’t always equal that of someone else. The passage of time and the changing of social norms will just further complicate matters. Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz is a sad/funny snapshot of a time that we can (hopefully) say has past. Not all of the jokes land as well as they did after 20 years, but the sadness of knowing your life is over remains as timeless ever. Even when the script doesn’t quite feel up-to-date, it still has the power to leave a lasting impression.
The Baltimore Waltz runs until 16 April at Fort Mason.
For tickets and information, please visit the productions official site here.
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