Hot l Baltimore
QUT Gardens Theatre
August 10 – 15
“What’s going on here? This isn’t a hotel; it’s a flop house!” is the pre-interval exclamation from a character who has been asleep on couch in its lobby for pretty much the entirety of the first act as he awaits chance to enquire regarding his missing former resident grandfather. And with this, the chaotic premise of “Hot l Baltimore” is shared.
With its menagerie of characters (15 in total) Langford Wilson’s off-Broadway hit tragicomedy “Hot l Baltimore” appears to be a good choice for a production featuring QUT final-year acting students. It is well-suited too for the QUT Gardens Theatre’s ample, wide stage which can easily cater for the often simultaneously unfolding narratives of the fictional lodging’s residents.
The once elegant but now dilapidated titular hotel is not without its problems, the ‘e’ in its neon sign has burned out and has long been left un-repaired, the elevator is out of order, the water is sometimes orange and there’s often a man to be found singing in the lobby (that’s Mr Morse). Over the course of the show the audience is privy to a day in the life of its guests, however, this Memorial Day is unlike any other as the broken-down venue has been condemned and its prostitute, transient and retired residents given their respective 30 days’ notice to leave. With so many stories, it is a difficult narrative to follow, despite Act One’s lengthy exposition in establishment of some but ultimately limited back-stories. And, consequently, it is difficult to feel anything much in way of empathy for the characters or their sad pasts, unfortunate presents and uncertain futures.
The play is comprised of a series of conversations between the motley crew of larger-than-life hotel residents, telling important and unimportant things about themselves and their meagre lives as they come and go from the lobby, and, as such, it is filled with conflict and character clashes. This should be at the heart of the narrative, however, when characters speak simultaneously, the effect is disconcerting and cements the truth of the adage that timing is everything. And while concurrent conversations add to the disorder, when they are not evenly pitched, the result is more confusion than comedy.
With so many personalities, it is difficult to develop a fondness for particular characters, however, there are many standouts within the cast. As dignified but eccentric retired waitress Millie, Indigo Hallett makes a subtle show of a quiet character in Act One, despite being almost overshadowed by the dominance of working girl April (Cynthia Howard) who is sexy, sassy and shocking in her sometimes vulgar statements. In Act Two, however, it is all three resident hookers who shine in individual characterisation and interactions. Together Maddison Burridge, as the talkative, good-natured Girl and Chiara Osborn as the flighty and optimistic Suzy, serve both as comic contrast and compliment to Howard’s performance as the straight talking April. But it is not only the ladies who shine, with Mackenzie Fearnley showing a notable commitment to the idiosyncrasies of his quirky, cranky widower character, Mr Morse and Rowan Chapman proving to be a thoroughly convincing put-upon night clerk, clearly besotted with the Girl.
The set is a busy but functional one with action divided amongst its hotel lobby spaces of check-in desk, lounge area, entrance and stairway to the upper floors. Its aesthetic is appropriately deteriorating, but still shows hints of its Art Deco heyday. However, at times it is difficult to place the piece. With mentions of Rockefeller and the lack of contemporary slang within its script, it seems to have a post World War One flavour, however, plastic coffee lid props and mention of President Bush contradict both this and the 1970s context of its conception. Perhaps this is appropriate for a show whose narrative is without real resolution, for although the theme of the American Dream is evident in the aspirations and outcomes of some characters, it is never really explored in any depth due to the work’s lack of plot or action. Instead, as we watch, in closing, April and young boy Jamie dance to ‘I Can See Clearly Now’, we can only assume a nod to an optimism that may either be realised or stay as eternal motivation to the luckless few still left at the residence.
Despite its break from character-based and plot-based play expectations into the realm of thematic response, “Hot l Baltimore” remains an elusive piece in terms of purpose and meaning making, rendering it an interesting work to contemplate. And while the cast and creatives do a very good job in the face of a demanding, ultimately over-complicated text, it just seems like it is missing something more than only its E.