Friday, December 01, 2006

Palo Alto Daily News review of The Baltimore Waltz

Palo Alto Daily News

It's so great to have had such wonderful success with this play. It's something that I will always remember..

Waltz' dances around bizarre circumstance A zany comedy about dying from AIDS was how playwright Paula Vogel processed her grief and paid tribute to her brother's death from that disease in 1988. A solid production of the show, "The Baltimore Waltz," is currently running at the cozy, 45-seat Pear Avenue Theater in Mountain View.

Playwright Vogel is best known for her 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama "How I Learned to Drive," a play about pedophilia. That play's sympathetic portrait of an older married man's sexual affair with his teenage niece was unsettling.

So, Vogel makes unusual choices as a playwright.

Although "Baltimore Waltz" opens with a brother being fired from his San Francisco library job for wearing a pink triangle, he suddenly finds himself back home in Baltimore visiting his sick sister, a first-grade schoolteacher.

In one of the play's unexpected twists, it turns out that the sister is the one who has AIDS, not the brother. Although it's not that simple.

A confused physician, flummoxed by the symptoms, speculates that the sister has ATD, or Acquired Toilet Disease, and that she caught it from sharing toilet seats with her students. Brother and sister then decide that since she's dying, they will head off on a tour of Europe together and seize life in its last moments.

"The Baltimore Waltz" is a mix of fantasy and reality, and it's not always clear which is which.

Early on the script threatens to degenerate into a pedestrian political rant. A later sequential sexual rampage is redundant almost to the point of numbingnesss.

Director Ray Renati and his cast, however, get good mileage out of the odd characters and situations. Actors Alexandra Matthew and John Romano sell a close and touching relationship between brother and sister.

Their high energy and zany farce performances serve the comedy well, but they also stay focused inside honest emotional characters, in carefully punctuated performances. Romano brings mystery to the San Francisco librarian who was fired for wearing a pink triangle.

Matthew is wrapped tightly and effectively as sister Anna, doomed by Acquired Toilet Disease, and compulsively sleeping with European waiters and bellhops in her last hurrah. The apparent absence of safe sex practices is unsettling. Basically, this is a world turned upside down, in which grown sister and brother share the same bed.

As the play's third actor, Jeff Clarke is amusing in a dozen smaller, over-the-top roles. In Holland, Clarke appears as the little Dutch boy who put his thumb in a dike, and who now makes a living sleeping with female tourists who regard him as something of a celebrity.

Elsewhere, Clarke functions as a government health official promoting Operation Squat, which encourages the use of home toilets. Later, he goes way over the top as a German physician specializing in esoteric urine-drinking cures.

Director Renati, who has been nurtured at the Pear and is one of their emerging success stories, handles the comedy well, then ends this story of compulsive comic excess with a touching emotional shift.

Designer Ron Gasparinetti's effectively resentful set features a mostly bare stage with two rolling toilet bowl consoles, a well-used bed, and a patch of grim, white-tiled bathroom wall up center stage.

This is a bizarre production of a bizarre play that makes for an unsettling evening in the theater. It reminds us that humor is often an indicator of pain.

Rating: Three stars

E-mail John Angell Grant at

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