Dealing With Disease

LTW's late-night series has another edgy success with 'The Baltimore Waltz'

OK, so you sit down at Paula Vogel's The Baltimore Waltz knowing only that it's a play about a brother and sister rampaging through Europe while one of them dies from a mysterious disease.

In the second scene, you find out that the brother is gay (he's a San Francisco children's librarian just given the pink slip, so he's maliciously having his little innocents cut out and wear pink triangles, just like he does). "Oh, no," you think, "not another AIDS play." But then it turns out that it's his straight sister who's been diagnosed with the disease. "Thank god," you think, "not another AIDS play." And then you find out that she's succumbing to Acquired Toilet Disease, which afflicts a very small segment of the population--unmarried elementary-school teachers--and is transmitted via toilet seats. "All right," you think, "at least it's not another damned earnest AIDS play."

Vogel has, in fact, denied that The Baltimore Waltz is an AIDS play; she describes it as "a play about processing grief," and her act of processing grief involves a surprising amount of comedy and a small bit of joy.

If you're not tipped off that something is screwy here when the sister, Anna, learns the name and nature of her illness, you've got to realize something demented is going on when her brother, Carl, seeking alternative therapies, calls his old friend in Vienna, a guy named Harry Lime. And if that fails to make you think of a certain 1949 Graham Greene movie about the postwar black-market drug trade, the program refers to the actor playing Harry Lime and several other characters as The Third Man. Somebody cue the zither. Vogel's going to treat this illness with a heady pop-culture cocktail.

Some of what Vogel pours from her shaker is pretty subtle; toward the end, the siblings consult an Austrian doctor whose name translates as "death rattle." Some ingredients are more recognizable, like Anna's promiscuity (compensating for 30 years of being a dull, good girl) reflecting society's assumption that AIDS was a problem exclusively for gay men who rut like rabbits. Speaking of rabbits, there's also a stuffed bunny in Carl's possession that signifies the comfort as well as the shame of Carl's sexual orientation, and it's employed with maximum silliness.

But some elements of Vogel's play are way too heavy-handed. The anger and bitterness of scenes targeting indifferent doctors and evasive bureaucracies make the script seem terribly dated. Vogel started writing this after her own brother Carl died of AIDS in 1988, and the play premiered in 1992; now that the government and medical professionals take AIDS more seriously, and better treatments have been developed, people with little memory of the Reagan-Bush I years may wonder what all Vogel's fuss is about.

Still, Vogel deploys most of her absurdities with enough finesse that the play's climax can be terribly moving, as the tragedy emerges from comedy and then possibly settles into an expression of enduring love. Not to mention that there's plenty of room for argument over whose nightmare this really is.

Live Theatre Workshop is presenting The Baltimore Waltz in its Etcetera series, 10:30 p.m. shows for thinking night owls. I still wish LTW would do this on the mainstage, when more people would be inclined to see it, but at least the company has the guts to mount this sort of thing at all. Beyond the value of the play's subject matter and style, it's especially sad that the production's three fine actors, directed by Adam-Adolfo, won't be seen by bigger audiences.

Jodi Rankin plays Anna, Vogel's stand-in. Rankin is always very good with characters who seem to be getting their lines from Martian prompters speaking to her through the fillings in her teeth, and there's plenty of that sort of thing going on with Anna. But Rankin also makes Anna's low-key moments believable; some of the most touching moments here are when she or Christopher Johnson as Carl are simply soft-spoken and vulnerable, but not maudlin.

Johnson is really in his element, and he throws himself into the role without going over the top; compared to Anna, he's the normal character here. Still, "normal" is relative; it's delightful to see the relish with which Johnson's Carl corrupts the children of San Francisco, though not in the way you think.

Eric Anson has the exhibitionist role of The Third Man, slipping from one character to another, sometimes in the space of a single sentence. I wish his Orson Welles impersonation were a bit sharper, but his Dr. Strangelove routine is pretty funny.

All three actors could benefit from a few sessions with a French and German coach, but otherwise the production makes good use of limited resources.

In The Third Man, the hero declares his intention to get to the bottom of things, but another character warns him, "Death's at the bottom of everything. ... Leave death to the professionals." Paula Vogel, in writing her farewell to and celebration of her lost brother, gives death a professional treatment, and so does LTW.

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