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The Hot l Baltimore
Sometimes a play succeeds or fails for a very specific reason. A standout performance can save an otherwise forgettable evening from obscurity. A great text can shine through a grubby production. Technical difficulties can distract to the point of sinking an otherwise competent effort.
It can be harder to assign blame when a production inspires a shrug. Such is the case with Nevada Repertory Company’s production of The Hot l Baltimore, a show that seems on the surface to do little wrong, but comes up short just the same. A production that amounts to a subpar result usually deserves some harsh criticism and perhaps even snarky rebuffs. To the credit of NRC (but to the detriment of theater critics and newspaper readers), this is not the case in The Hot l Baltimore.
The play, an artifact of the early ’70s that hasn’t aged well, concerns the denizens of a dilapidated hotel. The title refers to the lodging’s sign, which features a burned-out ’e’ that nobody has bothered to repair. The characters include prostitutes, forlorn old folks and other such dregs. Word has it that the hotel’s demolition has been scheduled, casting a pall over the soon-to-be-displaced residents. Apart from this inevitability, the play is unencumbered by the restrictive burdens of narrative arc. The bad news is unveiled, and the characters idly inch toward whatever depressing future awaits.
Actors are often the easiest critical point of entry in theater because good and bad acting are easily identifiable. Alas, it is not very illuminating to simply praise or skewer actors. Though The Hot l Baltimore might be approachable through a thematic lens, this production practically begs to be addressed on the level of its actors. The most central character is a compassionate young prostitute. Here, the role is cast with a girl (Breana Edgerton) who possesses no particularly prostitutional qualities, such as eroticism or emotional damage. Edgerton doesn’t deserve to be picked on. She, like the rest of the cast, competently tries to make lemonade. Liza Naomi Abrams offers a strong characterization of the grandmotherly Millie, adopting a physicality and vocal delivery that suit the role. However, Abrams is visibly student-aged, so the illusion never takes flight. Canaan Peterson, entertaining and meticulously mannered as the curmudgeonly Mr. Morse, similarly comes across like a kid playing dress-up.
These casting issues unfortunately lend the production the air of a high school play, the only forum where a talented kid could play an old man and earn accolades. Beyond high school theater, though, a young man probably shouldn’t be playing an old man. It’s either poor casting or symptomatic of a much deeper problem if NRC simply does not have access to older actors anymore. Either way, the production suffers.
Some bright spots do ensure the audience’s interest is held. The art deco set provides a strong sense of time and place, and the grand hotel sign truly deserves to be seen. Wesley Gaines McNair as a young man searching for his grandfather is the best counterpoint to the show’s casting problems. He’s not only good—just as importantly, he’s believable and sympathetic. Tellingly, his motives and story are clear and compelling, adjectives that are at a premium in this particular hotel.
This award-winning play depicts struggling people doing their best to find meaning and happiness in dark times. Now, as ever, this is a worthy focus for theater. But while good theater tells the truth, The Hot l Baltimore is bogged down with pretense.