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HART actors do well with 'tragicomic' characters

'Hot l Baltimore' cast makes its audiences follow clues

COURTESY PHOTO - Sandra Conlon as Girl (front), Robin Michaels as Millie (back), and Ilana Watson as April and Les Ico as Bill bring HARTs new play to life. Plays are funny things — some have clear-cut beginnings and endings, well-developed plotlines and carefully crafted character development. Lanford Wilson’s “Hot l Baltimore” is not one of those plays.

The show’s slice-of-life single day appears on stage full blown, like Athena springing from the head of Zeus. The characters do not develop — they just are, and the audience is left to assemble their relationships from a series of clues scattered through the show’s dialogue, costumes and script.

The show opens early in the morning on Memorial Day, some time at the start of the 1970s. The once glamorous Hotel Baltimore (now “Hot l”, because the light on the “e” burned out and was never fixed) has degenerated into a single-room occupancy flophouse with a generally motley group of tenants whose lives are in as much disarray as the hotel.

The night manager, Bill, played by Les Ico, is giving all of the tenants one month’s notice, as the tired old hotel is slated for demolition.

The tenants seem much less concerned with the impending loss of their rooms than with the day-to-day irritations that define their lives — the grumpy Mr. Morse, played by Dan Kelsey, is irate because his window won’t close; prostitute April, played by Ilana Watson, complains about the onset of daylight savings time; Mrs. Bellotti, played by Beth Self, whines incessantly about management’s refusal to let her son move back in after a recent jail stay, completely missing the essential fact that there will be no hotel in a matter of weeks.

Most puzzling, “Girl,” played by Sandra Conlon, obsesses over the timing of trains she will never take to places she will never go.

The lack of a more conventional plot structure puts a tremendous burden on the director and actors. In the current HART Theatre production, Patrick Brassell and his cast are largely successful in capturing the comedy and pathos of the original play. However, on opening night a few characters seemed unsure of their lines, which led to some uncomfortable pauses, interfered with the flow of dialogue and sometimes threw the other actors’ timing off — a problem which may well be resolved by the second week of the run.

Despite opening night glitches, most of the cast does a fine job of creating the tragicomic characters necessary to capture the audience’s attention, make them laugh and sometimes earn their sympathy.

As played by Robin Michaels, retired waitress “Millie” is the most compelling and likeable of the hotel’s residents. Michaels creates a sweet, ditzy, disconnected persona that nonetheless provides comfort and even occasional guidance to her fellow guests. Les Ico’s desk clerk is convincingly sincere and awkward, blushing like a male ingénue at the bawdy antics and language of the hotel’s three “working girls.” Sandra Conlon’s portrayal of the youngest prostitute, “Girl” — because she changes her name as often as her men — parallels Ico in her innocence, and like Michaels, she is able to deliver the most off-the-wall dialogue without a trace of self-conscious irony. Ilana Watson and Jenn Brownstein, the other two and considerably more well-seasoned hookers, are responsible for some of the show’s broadest humor and biggest laughs and they are experienced enough — as actresses, we presume — to be convincing as bottom of the barrel ladies of the night.

Perhaps “Hot l Baltimore’s” most pathetic and vulnerable character is the slightly dim “Jamie,” played by R. Justin Lizik. Lizik’s deer-in-the-headlights approach makes Jamie’s utter submission to his dominant sister quite credible, and sets up the touching moment at the end of the play when April displays her heart of gold by offering him a final dance.

In some ways, the star of the play is the hotel itself, and William Crawford’s beautiful set design is exquisitely appropriate to the grand hotel’s waning days. When the lights come up, the audience is immediately transported to a tacky but somehow familiar world that most of us have inhabited at some point in our lives. It’s worth the price of admission to be granted a brief visit to a time we would not wish to relive, but that we recall with foolish nostalgia.

“Hot l Baltimore” is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 S.E. Washington St. in Hillsboro through April 5, with performances at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays. Adult language and themes make the show inappropriate for younger audiences.


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