backstage (2006-14)

Nothing Doing

No plot, no problem— Hot L Baltimore ’s a hoot

Donald Thorne broods as Mr. Morse.

by Molly Kincaid

When director Robert Hahn opted to tackle Lanford Wilson’s 1970s hit Hot L Baltimore , he probably didn’t foresee that it would be so timely in regard to the current local and national “definition of family” controversy (see CityBeat on page 11). The play, which depicts the residents of a dilapidated Baltimore hotel all struggling to define themselves, could be seen as a commentary on the state of family, implying questions as to the value of such a social construct and the boundaries that define it.

Congregating in the lobby of the hotel on a listless Memorial Day weekend, this group of lost souls comes to resemble a family, replete with maddening dysfunction but bound by the human need to belong. Then again, regardless of whether or not lawmakers are legislating on it, there’s probably never been a time when this ubiquitous subject wasn’t in some way timely.

That’s why Theatre Knoxville Downtown, a hole-in-the-wall venue on North Gay Street, is the perfect space for the intimate show. For the entire 30-minute first act, I could reach out and touch the knee of Jason Hull, playing Paul Granger III, who sleeps the act away in a chair a foot away from the audience. This proximity, and the oddly-shaped set, which winds like a river through the two banks of audience, makes for an atypical, yet tangible theater-going experience.

Unfortunately, I suspect much of the audience could identify with Hull’s drowsy character throughout the first act. To be fair, the narcotizing effect has more to do with the script than anything else, as it seems to take Wilson a while to really sink his teeth into the action. The play opens as Bill, the hotel manager played by Robby Griffiths, and a young callgirl named simply “The Girl” (Erin Glisson) drink coffee and make the daily wake-up calls. The stage perks up a bit when April Green (played by Cherie Compton) bounds onto it in shiny gold leggings and a regal-looking muu muu, firing off curses and innuendoes that would make anyone spew their morning java.

After that, it’s all systems go, and each character ambles onstage with a different concern or bone to pick. There’s really not much of a plot to speak of, unless you count the overarching fear of the hotel’s imminent demolition, which is mentioned several times in passing. Everyone will have to move out in a few months, but for now they are mostly just concerned about the drafty windows, the lukewarm water and, most importantly, getting up in each others’ grills.

If you can get past the lackluster plot, Hot L is a vivid and insightful character study of a bunch of bickering dreamers all tied together by a common rootless existence. The two older prostitutes that live in the building, April and Suzy (Compton and the impeccably saucy Laura Champagney), like to joust with one another over who’s the sluttiest of them all, who turns the richest tricks, etc. Hull’s Granger, who’s recently emerged from a stint in jail, searches fruitlessly for a relative he believes to have lived in the hotel at one time. The kooky and manic brother and sister duo, Jackie and Jamie (Lisa Keyees Hatmaker and Robert McDonald III), chase whimsical dreams of farming soybeans in Utah. And veteran actor Donald Thorne captures the crabby Mr. Morse perfectly, veins-a-bulging when he’s having a glorious fit, forehead wrinkles shifting as he silently shells peanuts throughout the last act. The elderly Millie, played by the ever-charming Fran Shea, mostly sits listening and advising the young ones, yet there’s something searching in her moist eyes. Perhaps it’s loneliness.

The most refreshingly lost character, though, is “The Girl,” played by youngster Erin Glisson. Flitting about the stage in a hot pink halter-top and barely-there shorts, she hovers in everyone’s face, sweetly beseeching them for some attention. She changes her name constantly, hence the ambiguous title, signifying quite obviously her confused nature. While the other characters seem weathered and hardened, The Girl, a boundlessly curious ingénue—more than she is a mere prostitute—is a sparkle of hope in the big murky puddle of life’s disappointment. Her obsession with timing the trains that go whistling by conveys her sense of urgency as well as a longing to shake this one-horse hotel life.

In the cozy confines of Theatre Knoxville Downtown, however, it’s hard not to notice when Glisson doesn’t emerge for curtain call. Just a girl in real life, she toddles out a moment later still zipping up a turquoise gown. The Girl is off to the senior prom. m

What: Hot L Baltimore