22 February 1974: Wilson, Hot l Baltimore

Circle in the Square, Bleecker Street, New York

Lanford Wilson’s view is that illusion is the common lot, and his forte is to characterize the sentimental. He comes close to being a sentimentalist himself, in fact, but ultimately (I think) is not one. There is a sustaining vitality in the human community that he recognizes and, at his best, elucidates with sym­pathetic understanding. His characters are likely to utter cynical tirades about human non-communication, about the lack of love. This is Wilson’s subject, but his own method, unlike his characters’, is neither tirade nor tear-jerking rhetoric. What saves him is his sense of irony, and often it is comic irony. Without this, his seriousness would veer immediately towards bathos.

The conjunction of unlikely characters in the lobby of the Hotel Baltimore, which has lost the “e” of “Hotel” from its sign and is about to be lost altogether to the wrecking ball, is itself the main functional irony of the play. The method is both Jonsonian and Chekho­vian. Jonsonian, in its attempt at total variety of human character through the possibilities and limitations suggested by a specific locality; Chekhovian, in the combined humor and pathos pervasive through an entire social group. Wilson’s strength is that he can render accurately both the eccentric and the norm, often showing these as polarities in the individual personality. Aside from the hotel staff — Bill, the night clerk; Mr Katz, the day clerk; Mrs Oxenhan, a sort of bookkeeper — who supply verisimilitude and tone, the cast of hotel dwellers includes an array of loners remarkable for the futility of their lives, the illusoriness of their hopes, and, ultimately, the mirror images they become of one another. Each has a life story to tell, or to act out. It is a simple story, in its fundamentals, since in each case it is one of a basic need to transcend personal loneliness. The girl — Billie Jean, or Martha, or some other name that she may choose for herself — has been everywhere in the last six months, and at one point recites a litany of the names of American cities that stands as a metaphor for that basic urge towards some kind of experience that Wilson sees moving us all. The hotel is next to the train station, and the girl knows the schedules — she has been everywhere by train — and the trains and the lines are equally impermanent.

It is in fact hard to describe these things without touching on the sentimental, because that is the condition these people live in. There is, in this context, a premium on equan­imity. April, the hooker, is content; she seems to have accepted herself, and can laugh ­at herself and her trade. Not so Suzy, another girl of the streets, who is a sloppy sentiment­alist. Mr Morse, an old man, lives in another world. Jackie and Jamie, brother and sister, are health nuts — and Jackie, as a result, falls prey to a phony land scheme, buying Utah desert thinking it farmland. But Wilson’s irony is operating here too, for Jackie is also a common thief who gets caught stealing Mr Moore’s jewelry (all of sentimental value, chiefly), and at the end she leaves her unfortunate, dominated brother behind — in effect, abandons him. Paul Granger III is similarly a sentimentalist looking for the records of his grandfather’s presence in the hotel, but he abandons the search when he realizes that the next step is to look for his relative among the derelicts befriended by the Salvation Army. He has rebelled against a “high society” background, yet he can’t abandon it himself, despite the fact that he has escaped from a work farm where, as a college student, he was sentenced for two years for possessing pot. “They want us to get drunk on some mash whiskey, not high on pot.”

And so it goes. Wilson has a good ear, and he gives his characters easy lines to be good with. The action flags here and there — at least once in each act, I thought — but the man who fell asleep and snored through half the third act had no cause, no cause. The performances were even and very good, from Faith Catlin’s girl with the somewhat frozen smile, who wants to do good, wants to relate to people, to Burke Pearson’s fine bits, one with Suzy, who first lures him, and then with a gay young fellow played with zest by Richard A. Steel, who gets credit in the program only for the Cab Man, which he doubles. Antony Tenuta is a despicably callous room clerk, and Fred Stuthman’s Mr Morse is a granite-like hulk, alternately raging and staring in adamant silence. Chip Zein plays the difficult low-key role of Jamie with style; he knows the character well, and shows it. Jane Cronin as April brings a believable stylishness to the role of an illusion-less prostitute, the comedy of whose character is that she likes her work. The play well deserves its current long run, and makes me want to read more of Wilson than The Madness of Lady Bright — which I admire enormously — and Balm in Gilead, which is an earlier study of the group that reemerges, in a lighter key and, I think, more successfully, in The Hot l Baltimore.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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