In the Moment: ‘The Baltimore Waltz’ at the Keegan Theatre

How any of us deal with the death of a loved one is so very personal. With the passing of her beloved brother Carl, playwright Paula Vogel found her own sui generis way to let the world know how much he meant to her; she wrote a loving embrace in the play The Baltimore Waltz.

L-R: Michael Innocenti, Brianna Letorneau, and Ray Ficca in Paula Vogel's The Baltimore Waltz, now playing at the Keegan Theatre. Photo by Cameron Whitman.
L-R: Michael Innocenti, Brianna Letorneau, and Ray Ficca in Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz, now playing at the Keegan Theatre. Photo by Cameron Whitman.

In its current production at the Keegan Theatre, under the direction of Susan Marie Rhea, The Baltimore Waltz is a warm, tight, loving hug from playwright Vogel to her brother Carl. It is also in its own idiosyncratic way a reminder for many of a certain age, of how things once were in the 1980s when HIV and AIDS were poorly understood and AIDS patients were widely blamed for their illness. Acceptance from the American community was a long way off.

As I took in The Baltimore Waltz, my mind went back quickly to the March 1987 letter from Carl Vogel to sister Paula that is projected in a slide shown in the Keegan foyer and also printed in the Keegan program. Carl died of AIDS about a year later in 1988. The letter is here.

As I re-read Carl’s 1987 letter it seemed to me that Carl was providing hints and options for what became The Baltimore Waltz. The play was first produced in 1992. The Baltimore Waltz is groundbreaking not only because of its subject matter about love and loss and defiance in the face of impending death, but in its delightfully absurdist shout at the devil. It is a genuine, over-the-top comic presence, showing deep love through shared laughter.

The Baltimore Waltz is like a 90-minute roast of a tribute to a deceased loved one by a fine speaker who brings laughter and happy tears to a crowd of mourners.

With the help of Keegan’s Jeff Klein, I am able to provide another piece of the Baltimore Waltz puzzle–an article written by Paula Vogel and published in POZ magazine a decade after her brother passed. That article is linked here.

Reading this article and especially its last paragraph, I could only wonder what that conversation might have been between playwright Vogel and her brother Carl about Angels in America and the Clinton Administration, both of which came into public existence after Carl passed away.

Then I began to consider if The Baltimore Waltz would best resonate with Boomers or those who lived through and survived the horrible 1980s. That answer I cannot know. But, reading arts columnist Philip Kennicott’s recent Washington Post article on photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (who died of AIDS not long after Carl Vogel) provides much to ponder about the same question: how does time affect responses to the arts?

Kennicott speculated out loud about “what audiences today” would make of Mapplethorpe’s works of 30 years ago. I wonder the same for The Baltimore Waltz; what might audiences of today make of it and take away after seeing it?

Brianna Letorneau, and Michael Innocenti in Paula Vogel's The Baltimore Waltz, now playing at the Keegan Theatre. Photo by Cameron Whitman.
Brianna Letorneau, and Michael Innocenti in Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz, now playing at the Keegan Theatre. Photo by Cameron Whitman.

Please, do take in Keegan’s Baltimore Waltz for Vogel’s unbreakable love for her brother, for the absurdist journey she concocted following a rabbit into unexpected amusing journeys and sexual couplings, and its diversions into classic movies such as The Third Man and Dr. Strangelove. (Read Beatrice Loayza’s DCMTA review here).

The Baltimore Waltz is lively, irreverent remembrance. Yet I do wonder if personal memories of the 1980s cloud my impressions of the production. If you see Keegan’s production, please let me know what you think.

Running Time: One hour and thirty minutes, with no intermission.

The Baltimore Waltz plays through February 9, 2019, at the Keegan Theater – 1742 Church Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, visit the box office or purchase them online.

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David Siegel
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Metro Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.