Something is undeniably right about a play that keeps you chuckling all evening then sends you off with a lump in your throat. That, in a nutshell, is Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz, now opening another sterling theater season at Rep Stage in Howard County.
Vogel wrote the play in response to her brother’s death from AIDS in 1988. But the work, which won an off-Broadway Obie as Best New American Play in 1992, is more a repudiation of reality than an attempt to mirror it.
Like most gifts, it is better when you unwrap it yourself. Suffice it to say that Vogel finds quirky ways to reveal her story — beginning with a truly wacky prognosis of doom delivered by a physician who might have wandered in from a book by Lewis Carroll.
At Rep Stage the dizzying doc is played by the returning Sasha Olinick, who gets to wear many hats in the course of the evening. Not the least of these is the famous wide-brimmed hat that Orson Welles wore as Harry Lime in Carole Reed’s The Third Man — an earlier tale of naïve pilgrims trying to unravel a mystery in a ravaged landscape.
The mystery, in this case, is symbolized by a stuffed bunny that has been smuggled out of brother Carl’s childhood more or less unscathed. Now it must be smuggled across Europe toward a rendezvous with an enigmatic spy who promises a miracle cure for that fatal disease.
Does the stuffed animal represent vulnerability? danger? security? No matter. Vogel uses it as a symbol of her pilgrims’ innocence. They bear no responsibility at all for the consequences with which they now struggle. Even the disease itself, something identified as ATD (Acquired Toilet Disease), has been contracted via the first and most basic of toddler skills.
Carl’s sister Anna makes sure that the disease is not passed from person to person, for she has an agenda all her own for her and Carl’s getaway trip to Europe. You will find her agenda in the Erica Jong index under “zipper.” It amounts to a bed-hopping, whirlwind tour with a series of heavily accented waiters, porters, revolutionaries, and one very odd Dutch hero.
Michelle Eugene stars as Anna, who narrates and picks her way across the ever-rising barricades of nonsense in her own no-nonsense fashion. There is little that is coy or particularly erotic about human lust, according to Vogel, and Eugene reflects that. She approaches each liaison as no more than a way station on Anna’s journey to regain control in a strange world conducted largely in foreign tongues.
As the third and final member of the Rep cast, Ben Cunis gives a natural and unforced performance as Anna’s brother Carl. Cunis allows the audience to project upon him rather than to burden him with pronounced personality traits. We know he can be playful and generous with his sister, but he is also prone to peevishness, as when he stomps off a job with defiant gestures at his boss or halts a slide show when the images don’t match his poetic descriptions.
Director Suzanne Beal has assembled a dandy cast, although on opening night they had yet to completely click as an ensemble. One senses unlocked depths of humor and pathos in the rushed interchanges, and some missed opportunities for theatrical poetry beyond the burlesque.
Still and all, this is a fine introduction to Vogel’s intriguing play, and it should become even finer as the run proceeds.
The foreboding set by Scenic Designer Collin Ranney consists of two towering institutional walls separated by a theatrical curtain, with a hanging footbridge up above for that iconic meeting with Harry Lime.
Lighting design by Marianne Meadows and sound design by William K. D’Eugenio help us follow along on a trip that is always more metaphorical than representational.
The Baltimore Waltz may be a shade glib for veteran drama-lovers, but those who enjoy ‘tripping the light fantastic’ should find that Rep Stage has gotten its season off on the right foot.
Running Time: About 90 minutes, with no intermission.
The Baltimore Waltz plays through September 13, 2015 plays at Rep Stage in the Studio Theatre of the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center at Howard Community College — 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, in Columbia, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (443) 518-1500, or purchase them online.