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April 8, 2011

The Hot L Baltimore is missing more than just its “e”

The title of Steppenwolf’s latest production, The Hot L Baltimore, is missing an “e.” Meant to mimic a neon sign on which one letter has burned out, that unsettling gap among glowing letters could reveal the pain of hard times, or maybe a dogged determination to remain open in spite of the challenges. In any case, the hotel is probably somewhere dirty and forgotten: not the ideal place to be. Yes, that burned-out “e” can mean a lot of things, but unfortunately, in this case, that feeling of decline and that off-putting shabbiness applies also to the play itself, which is a disappointment in its own right.

It’s not that The Hot L Baltimore is particularly unpleasant to watch, but rather that it falls well short of Steppenwolf’s reputation for the theatrical magic that makes me viscerally giddy every time I take a seat under their roof. The feeling of having been let down is made worse by all the signs of success hovering around the show. Director Tina Landau has created several remarkable productions at Steppenwolf, including last season’s captivating and imaginative The Tempest, and 2008’s Superior Donuts, which later appeared on Broadway. Jon Michael Hill, who Landau directed in both of the aforementioned productions, is one of the most remarkable young actors working in Chicago, a developing talent who is bound to go the same route as Steppenwolf’s most famous alumni. But even Hill’s strikingly subtle performance cannot salvage a show crippled by the erratic acting of its ensemble.

The Hotel Baltimore, a damaged building doomed to demolition, is the setting for the events of the play, in which each tenant must come to terms with the loss of his or her home. Housing occasionally rowdy prostitutes, entrepreneurial orphans, cranky old men, and the dangerously insane, the hotel might be considered remarkable for its implicit refusal to come crashing down. Bill Lewis (Jon Michael Hill) tries to keep order as best he can as the desk clerk, but that’s a tough job when Suzy (Kate Arrington) brings home her violent johns, angry Mr. Morse (Yasen Peyankov) shouts complaints about the hot water, and the hotel manager Mr. Katz (James Vincent Meredith) argues constantly with the loudmouthed Jackie (Alana Arenas). And the situation isn’t made any easier when Samuel Taylor (Paul Granger III) arrives in the lobby demanding information about his lost grandfather.

As the number of parenthetical intrusions in that last paragraph will tell you, this play depends heavily on the performance of its ensemble. Lanford Wilson’s script offers little help for faltering actors. This is not a play for lengthy monologues, dramatic entrances, or third-act revelations. The story lives and dies on the actors’ ability to fabricate a vibrant, frighteningly conflicted community of lost souls who have been pushed to the bottom of the social hierarchy. And while a few actors strive to create such a community (notably Hill as the desk clerk and Molly Regan playing a wise old woman), others simply cannot pull it off. Some acting is downright shoddy, like Allison Torem’s stilted delivery in her role as a scatterbrained young prostitute, while others are competent enough but cannot respond well to their castmates. Even more so than in many other plays, the cast of The Hot L Baltimore is only as strong as its weakest link.

Steppenwolf is still probably the best theater in Chicago to see gorgeously realistic set design, and the Hotel Baltimore lobby is a cornucopia of visual delights shouldering the weight of the hotel’s long history and its present state of degradation. The presence of some kind of ghost or specter (Sean Allan Krill), unseen by the characters, contributes to such a sense of lost history. Besides John Michael Hill, the very deliberate staging of the ghost’s movements is the best thing about this play, and provides some compensation for the wavering of other actors. Whenever I was sick of stiff dialogue or flubbed punch lines, I just turned my eyes toward the ghost and watched his majestically tragic motion through the dying building. The ghost can sing, too, and his sadly beautiful voice is the only thing that can ever so briefly transport you away from the play’s flaws.

Like the hotel itself, The Hot L Baltimore sags under the weight of its many characters. Ultimately, the intended portrait of a community’s last days never quite comes to fruition because of the cast’s failure to actually seem like a community.

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