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'Hot L Baltimore': A look at frustrated survivors

Maybe the '70s really did suck. "Hot L Baltimore," which had its premiere in 1973, evokes the sort of malaise that Jimmy Carter would famously get into trouble for talking about a few years later.

The various liberation movements of the '60s had spent themselves like waves on stubborn sand, disillusionment had replaced a sense of limitless possibilities, and nothing much seemed to have changed.

It's just the milieu for playwright Lanford Wilson's characters, who often move on the margins of a decadent culture, perhaps offering parallels to the outsider sensibility Wilson cultivated as a gay man in New York City in the 1960s and '70s.

In the rollicking new production of "Hot L Baltimore" that opened Friday night on Rogue Community College's Warehouse stage on Bartlett Street, directed by John Cole and Ron Danko, Karl Brake and Thayne Abraham's set limns a hostelry so down at the heels that when one of the letters fell off its marquee — an e — nobody bothered to replace it, giving the play its title.

The Hot L is filled with outsiders, dreamers and losers hanging around or passing through. There is a girl obsessed with train whistles, a young man seeking the grandfather he doesn't know, an old man fighting over checkers games as he awaits death, a naive, perhaps delusional, brother-sister team dreaming of growing organic food in Utah.

If dramatic sets came in pairs of opposites, like those subatomic particles and their anti-particles in quantum physics, the Hot L would be paired with the Grand Hotel. As in the Grand Hotel, people come and go, but nothing seems to change. But while the people in the Grand Hotel — Garbo and Crawford and a couple of Barrymores — reek of Art Deco glamour, those in the Hot L reek of threadbare rooms, boozy nights and questionable plumbing.

There is no plot in the ordinary sense, nor a villain to drive it. All we know is that the hotel seems destined for the wrecking ball. That's a case of life imitating art, since this was probably the last-ever production in RCC's intimate little Warehouse, which in recent years has mounted spirited productions such as "The Merchant of Venice" and "Sweeney Todd."

Girl (Mig Windows) seems to be the central character, or at least she talks like it. Lawdamighty (as they might say in Baltimore) does Girl talk. In one fugue-like rant she lists seemingly half the cities in the United States, accompanying herself with humorous gestures.

Girl would be obnoxious as all get-out if the actor playing her didn't bring a certain innocent, coltish exuberance to the role, which Windows manages. Like the audience, the other characters — an extrovert hooker (Arden Prehn), the hotel owner (David Dials), a ditzy Southern belle (Jennifer Phillips), the patient desk clerk (Marcus Ueberall), a lonely old man (Russ Mitchell) — seem to find her irresistible, a quirky force of nature.

Although just a bit over two hours long, "Hot L" has a three-act structure with two intermissions. The first act was a bit flat, perhaps a case of opening night jitters reinforced by an audience taking a moment to come to terms with it. The second act acquired momentum, and the third rolled on like those romantic trains we kept hearing in the distance.

Wilson grew up in Missouri and in the 1960s wrote plays for Caffe Cino in Greenwich Village and founded the Circle Repertory Company, where the debut of "The Hot L Baltimore" won a fistful of major awards. The heterosexual couples in Wilson's plays often are seen as analogs of gay people, and it doesn't take much imagination to see, say, April, the outgoing bawd, camping it up as an aging homosexual queen.

But ultimately Wilson is showing us disposable people, sensitively. In a world that's running down (the hotel, Baltimore, the '70s), he takes us, seemingly without trying to, into the inner worlds of frustrated people who may be in the process of being destroyed but don't accept defeat.

Girl attributes the pervading entropy to people not having the conviction of their passions. Like Beckett characters, the Hot L people can't go on, but must go on. When everything crumbles around you, you can still dance.

"Hot L Baltimore" runs weekends through May 17. For tickets call 245-7637.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.

A scene from Rogue Community College production of 'Hot L Baltimore.' - Photo by Graham Lewis