Have you ever wondered what would it be like to live in a hotel? If your image of that kind of life is swanky and luxurious, think again. At The Hotel Baltimore, life is not so lavish. The hotel is run-down and seedy and the inhabitants are quite the quirky bunch. Eviction notices have been sent out, and the hotel is set to be demolished. Despite the run-down, sometimes repulsive nature of this hotel, however, is a deep sense of belonging and connection. The inhabitants each have a very personal relationship to the Hotel Baltimore and to their neighbors living in it, making the upcoming demolition troubling and worrisome.
Lanford Wilson’s play, “The Hot L Baltimore” now in its run at the Steppenwolf Theatre is a play more about place than it is about plot or inter-personal human relationships. It is about the relationships man creates with a physical space that is at times dear and at times far from the heart. Because of this emphasis on place, the nature of the play is a bit unconventional, with a unique underlying structure. As such, “The Hot L Baltimore” brings with it innovation and creativity, but also great obstacles and challenges to overcome. While I enjoyed getting to know this 1970s hotel and the inhabitants within it, I ultimately felt that the lack of clear plot and character focus gave the play little drive, with few climactic moments. I was less moved by what was going on in front of me because there was very little character and story to focus on, other than the basic plot that this hotel is dying and the people within it must move on.
Despite this, the set, designed by James Schuette, was incredibly intricate and impressive. Most of the show takes place in the lobby of the hotel---both on the cushiony guest couches and at the frantic reception desk. The audience also catches a glimpse at the way each of these individuals privately lives by way of a comprehensive skeletal image of the hotel in which we can see through each resident’s room. By being able to see inside all three stories of the hotel, with each room furbished so vastly differently, the audience is able to get a better understanding of each character’s personalities, adding greater dimension to our perception of each character. Additionally, because the scenes take place simultaneously downstairs in the lobby and upstairs in various private rooms, it creates this very real, lifelike hotel that feels like it is alive and running in real-time. As a result, I felt like I was really a part of the daily life of this crazy hotel. I felt this even more so because the hotel is constantly up and running, with residents and employees milling about, even while the audience is taking its seat before the play officially begins, as well as during intermission. The audience is thus constantly witness to the daily life of the hotel; there is no clear start or stop to its daily activities.
Because this play’s focus is on place rather than on plot, the characters work together as an ensemble, and there are no clear stand-out roles or actors. Suzy (Kate Arrington), a girley, vivacious prostitute lives life on the wildside. Bereft of proper manners and behavior, she is the type who would not be accepted for long in most places. At one point, she comes down the lobby stairs in her pink bathrobe, angered by her abusive male visitor, and strips naked in front of everyone. You get the sense from her, and from the other characters, that they view this hotel like their private home. The characters feel incredibly comfortable in it; sometimes, too comfortable (as indicated by this occurrence)! Her stark naked body was quite the sight, and something that came out quite unpredictably, keeping the audience on its feet. Suzy’s prostitute pal, April (de'Adre Aziza), is also an out-of-control woman with an air of flexibility and ease; she is the opposite of a straight-laced, conservative person. Because of this, despite her despicable role in society, she is an incredibly likeable character who cares about the people she has gotten to know. Jon Michael Hill, who plays Bill Lewis, the front desk/reception-worker, is a fun, upbeat character with super suave dance moves that make you feel like you’ve returned right back to the 1970’s/Motown era. His partner-in-crime, The Girl, played by Allison Torem, adds a unique dynamic to the show. She is a characteristically young employee of this hotel who can easily be recognized by her insane curiosity and nonstop love of talking. Her high voice and hyperactive behavior, while at times a nuisance to the ears, lucidly brings out her youthfulness. Though it feels strange at first to see a young white girl working at The Hotel Baltimore, it also makes sense when looking at the broader picture of this somewhat strange, unconventional hotel. Nothing about this hotel seems normal, not excluding The Girl.
Namir Smallwood, who plays Jamie, is also an exceptional actor. His portrayal of a mentally or developmentally disabled (it’s not entirely clear what diagnosis he has) teenage boy is incredibly sincere. His shyness and lack of proper social skills garnered much sympathy from me personally, and I saw in him the definition of what it means to be a social outcast. Yet despite this, the Hotel Baltimore serves as a safe haven and refuge for him, somewhere wherein everyone knows him intimately and respects him just as much as they would any other individual.
One of the ideas “The Hot L Baltimore” implicitly brings up (through showing and not verbally telling) is the possibility of connecting sincerely to something despite outside, aesthetic notions of it. The hotel itself is ill-managed and full of havoc and impropriety, yet despite this and even perhaps because of this, the residents develop a love for it, something they will likely not be able to replicate elsewhere. Despite the fact that society looks down on these people and on this cumbersome hotel, the residents find refuge in it and amongst each other. They have created their own community within it, and because of this there is tremendous value in the hotel, and thus tremendous loss with its imminent destruction. Also shown in the play in a positive light is the way in which blacks and whites are peacefully coexisting. Not long after the civil rights movement has taken place, the residents of this hotel all seem to get along perfectly fine. Black-white tension is not perceptible in the least respect. This adds further value to the Hotel Baltimore, another indication that what is within is more valuable than what is seen from without.
Ultimately, I found the writing focused too heavily on the daily grinds of the hotel, without providing a real story to follow. While the play’s lack of lucid character development and plot (and thus lack of climax and catharsis as well), left me wanting more, I appreciated the humor, hope, vitality, and community that this play shared. I was excited to escape into the ‘70s and I felt this play gave an in depth look at a place very significant to some, that otherwise would go unnoticed. Despite its many flaws, the play brimmed with much life and energy.
In the Downstairs Theatre
Thu. March 24, 2011 — Sun. May 29, 2011
Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes with 1 intermission
Photos by Michael Brosilow