It’s rare that a play comes along that is as intensely personal as The Baltimore Waltz. Seeing Paula Vogel’s 1992 play is like getting a private window into the author’s soul laid bare. Such autobiographical works can be devastatingly rewarding when done correctly, but also have a tendency to fall apart at the seams if the author lets their emotions get in the way of their dramaturgical instincts. Thankfully, while the edges of The Baltimore Waltz are slightly frayed, the play still amasses to a highly moving evening of theatre. Paula Vogel will get her long overdue Broadway debut later this month with Indecent, but west coast theatergoers are also given a great opportunity to celebrate the always innovative playwright at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, which is producing a top-notch revival of the play in celebration of the company’s 50th anniversary.
The story concerns Anna, a first grade Baltimore schoolteacher who is diagnosed with a deadly condition known as ATD, or Acquired Toilet Disease (no, it’s not real), and decides to go to Europe to look for an experimental drug treatment with her brother Carl, a children’s librarian living in San Francisco who was recently fired for his sexuality. As the duo waltz through the major cities of Europe, Anna decides to sleep with as many men she can get her hands on while she’s still alive while Carl stays celibate and visits as many art museums as he can get his hands on. The rest of the ensemble roles are carried out by a character referred to as The Third Man, which is one of many references of the play to The Third Man, Carol Reed and Graham Greene’s 1949 noir film (a side note: watching The Third Man is not necessary to enjoy the play, though it may help you sort out some of the evening’s events. It is also one of the very best films of the 1940s, so it’s a relatively painless homework assignment and you might want to consider watching it even if you don’t go see The Baltimore Waltz). Also relevant to the plot is a stuffed rabbit that Carl carries around with him everywhere he goes that he seems extremely nervous to carry through customs. It turns out to be the key piece of the evening’s puzzle—David Lynch almost certainly saw this play and was inspired by the rabbit to create the key and lockbox in his 2001 masterpiece Mulholland Dr.
Covering about twenty different locations over the course of three months, The Baltimore Waltz is not a neat and tidy little drama. Its sensibilities run towards absurdist comedy mixed with genuine pathos, and the play becomes increasingly surreal as the evening wanes. The overall effect is a very funny play with some very moving sequences, mostly based on Anna’s fear of mortality, but it begins to feel that it is losing its way towards the end of the evening. Fear not, for Vogel knows what she is doing, pulling the rug out from underneath the work for a denouement that stuns as much as it does move one to tears. However, Vogel’s surrealist instincts tend to come across more like she is replicating actually abstract artists rather than creating something unique on her own, which damages the play overall.
There are moments of mind-boggling brilliance, such as the subversion of the celibate gay best friend archetype seen in movies and television of the 1990s and 2000s, as well a deeply powerful emotional undercurrent that make The Baltimore Waltz essential theatre, and it’s doubtful a better production of the show will come along this century that is better than the one currently playing at the Magic Theatre. Patrick Alparone is magnificently fun as Carl, his campy-yet-not-stereotypical performance exactly the way that so many queer characters should be, yet are too often not, portrayed as. Lauren English gives a devastatingly powerful performance as Anna, perfectly combining the wacky mannerisms of the character with her emotional catharsis that she undergoes. Greg Jackson, direct from being a standby for all eight members of the D’Ysquith family in the sidesplitting A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder on Broadway, plays his many characters here with a kind of hilarious aplomb reminiscent of that multifaceted role. My favorite of his characterizations was the German rebellious anti-bourgeoise bad boy, though all of his portrayals are fantastic in their own way.
Director Jonathan Moscone’s staging is refreshingly no-frills and absolutely direct, perfectly suited for the Magic Theatre’s intimate thrust stage. Nina Ball’s set and Meg Neville’s costumes are similarly un-flashy (though there are some fabulous wigs), but are exactly what they need to be. I was most impressed with Heather Gilbert’s technicolor lighting, which was as visually beautiful as it was startlingly effective.
The Baltimore Waltz isn’t a masterpiece, but it stays with you all the same. If you’re tired of the endlessly safe movies and television of the day (god knows I am), you won’t regret getting to see something as truly daring and frequently moving as what the Magic Theatre is producing right now.
The Baltimore Waltz plays at the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture in San Francisco through April 16. Tickets and information available here.