Oct 28, 2021

Throwback Thursday: The Music of 'Hot l Baltimore'

At American Theatre I've often (though not often enough) had the pleasure of assigning and publishing pieces by my brilliant friend and colleague Isaac Butler. But there was a time when he assigned and edited me, for his blog Parabasis; once he asked me contribute my thoughts on Kenneth Lonergan and This Is Our Youth for a package of pieces he called "The Adolescence Issue," and another time he had me write about Lanford Wilson's Hot l Baltimore for a package of stories about that underrated American playwright. I've only seen the play onstage once, in a lovely if small-scaled production at Burbank's Little Victory Theatre back in 1996; if I reviewed it then (I think I did), I don't think I have the clipping. This tribute to the play will have to do. This is the post as it appeared on Sept. 30, 2011.   

Editor's Note: Rob Weinert-Kendt, who is an absolute badass when it comes to theatre and music, has brought his keen eye and keener pen to Lanford Wilson's The Hot l Baltimore, discussing how musicality works within a play where there is no actual music.

No one sings a note in Lanford Wilson’s sprawling yet nimble 1973 ensemble piece The Hot l Baltimore. So why does the play’s character list suggest vocal ranges for nearly half of the dozen characters, from night clerk Bill Lewis (“Baritone”) to prostitute April Green (in possession of a “mellow alto laugh”), and at least make a point of mentioning the vocal quality of all the rest (“thin-voiced” Mrs. Bellotti, Mr. Morse’s “high, cracking voice”)? It’s a clear sign upfront that Hot L Baltimore was constructed as a piece of music as much as a play—that Wilson heard it chorally. And indeed, the overlapping dialogue that was a signature of Wilson’s first major full-length, Balm in Gilead, is in evidence here, but is here more assuredly orchestrated, less jagged and cacophonous, with clear leading lines and supporting accompaniment.

But the musical quality of Hot l is more than a simple effect or device; it’s not only a matter of sound. It’s embedded into the structure of the play; its three acts follow, with uncanny, almost impersonal discipline, a classical three-part sonata form, which is the bones of all the great classical symphonies: theme, development, capitulation. The first act introduces the characters and their concerns in turn, as Bill, the hotel’s night clerk, places a rhythmic series of 7 a.m. wakeup calls, while Girl—a 19-year-old call girl who’s tried on the names Billy Jean, Lilac Lavender, and Martha without letting any of them stick—lingers behind the desk as a not entirely unwelcome annoyance. We quickly learn not only that this shabby, faded hotel is something of a losers’ last resort but that it’s destined for demolition. Apart from the residents—a trio of prostitutes, two retirees, an antsy young hustler and her slow little brother—the place sees only business visitors (johns, a cab driver, a pizza delivery man) and a sad pair of family relations interceding on behalf of former tenants.

It’s the usual outsiders’ gallery, in other words, the sort Wilson was famous for humanizing right up to the edge of romanticizing them. He gives Girl and Millie, a kindly but distracted retired waitress, a kind of yin/yang dialogue about the passing of time (Millie’s resigned to it, the Girl can’t abide it), and this constitutes much of the thematic development in Act Two, which otherwise involves the efforts of a young college refugee, Paul, to find his grandfather’s last known address, and the posturings of Jamie and Jackie, more-pathetic-than-scary hustlers trying to subsist on natural foods and the occasional larceny. Along the way, Wilson’s characters draw the obvious links between the decay of the hotel and of its residents' desperation with the crumbling state of the American polity. “If my clientele represents a cross-section of American manhood, the country’s in trouble,” says the wisecracking whore April, in a typical one-liner.

But what’s striking about these, and a number of other tart social observations, is that they’re mostly delivered offhand, effectively absorbed into the naturalistic ebb and flow of hotel lobby traffic—into the forward motion of the larger piece. And while Girl is the sort of heart-on-her-sleeve naif given to passionately youthful, painfully sincere pronouncements (“I want to see a major miracle in my lifetime!”), she gets no bravura, time-bending soliloquy, of the sort Darlene gets in Balm in Gilead.

In fact, nobody in Hot l gets speeches like that. Not only is there no big having-it-all-out, here’s-where-I-draw-the-line monologue; there’s no big showdown, either. The closest the play has to a climax is the champagne toast offered by Suzy, the svelte whore who constitutes zaftig April’s nemesis, as she departs in a cab for greener pastures and she and April spar to the point of mild tears one last time.

Throughout, the longest speeches are given to Girl, whose commentary provides something of a tissue for the play; she has a curiously moving—and yes, musical—moment in which she rattles off the names of a series of American cities, from Amarillo to Utica. And Millie has a series of reveries about her family in Act Two—slightly harrowing recollections of her family’s vanishing wealth that crack the play’s patina of nostalgia. Obviously decay and dissolution weren’t invented by the 1970s, any more than peace and love were by the ’60s.

And though all of the residents appear in all three acts, which span 17 hours of this mostly uneventful Memorial Day, Bill—the laconic night clerk who is in many ways the audience’s stand-in, the relatively sane lens through which we’re meant to view the action, and who seems in his own passive way to be quietly smitten with Girl—is entirely absent for the long second act. This isn’t just true to his situation—he’s the night clerk, after all, and the second act is set in the afternoon—it’s also a key signal that Wilson has made the individual voices in his play subordinate to the larger form and themes. This will not be primarily the story of Bill pining for Girl, or of the two having some kind of centrally meaningful exchange, at least not any more than anyone else has a meaningful exchange in this not-quite-a-home, not-quite-an-impersonal-business limbo (indeed, in the geography of Lanford Wilson’s America, Hot l sits uneasily, purgatorially between the cruel, low-life diner of Balm in Gilead and the fractured household of Fifth of July). Throughout the second act, collegiate Paul effectively stands in for Bill as a male object for Girl’s enthusiasm. But then Paul, too, recedes in Act Three, even as Girl takes on his grandfather search as her personal crusade; he’s not really all that interested anymore, either in Girl or in his grandfather.

Bill is there for this final act, though, as the long day ends, and themes that have been sounded before repeat themselves, only differently, as the Act Two development that has come between them—again, not story “development” per se, as plot strands will be left tangled in a heap like so many extension cords in a hotel closet, but thematic development—has shaded and recast them. Bill’s inchoate longing is one that resurfaces: There’s a devastating stage direction, seemingly out of nowhere, as Girl traipses upstairs after Suzy’s champagne farewell. It reads simply, “Bill looks off after her, aching.” It’s a note that Bill can’t play with his baritone, but it’s that note of sweet, unarticulated pain that sounds most strongly throughout this beautiful, haunted play.

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