Los Angeles, CA- Director Che Walker’s production of Lanford Wilson’s 1973 play “Hot l Baltimore,” which had a successful run on the Gilbert Stage at the iconic Stella Adler Theatre in Los Angeles, brought together a mishmash of colorful characters who all have one thing in common– they are all on the verge of homelessness as the seedy Hotel Baltimore that they call home is slated for demolition.
Set in the lobby of the dilapidated hotel, “Hot l Baltimore,” which pulls its title from the neon marquee with the burnt out ‘e’ that sits above the dying building, follows the trials and tribulations of the soon to be evicted characters as they live out their final days at the hotel.
The cast of the show gives audiences a brilliant slice of life peek into the lives of these characters, which range from naive hopefuls and over-the-top eccentrics, to cynical prostitutes who’ve seen too much sorrow to ever fully recover and the hotel’s less than chipper staff that seem to go out of their way to make all of the ‘guests’ feel like they’re the scum of the earth.
Mona Lisa Abdallah first takes the stage as the hotel’s daytime desk clerk Mrs. Oxenham, and boy does this actress bring her easily flustered, germaphobic and overly conservative character to life with distinct style. From her fidgety, nail biting mannerisms to her unrelenting nosey-ness and constant eavesdropping, Mona Lisa makes Mrs. Oxenham into a character we all love to hate.
The interactions between Oxenham and Paul (played by Robert Oliver Gislason), a former tenant who returns to the hotel (after being sent away to a work farm for two years due to a drug conviction) in search of his grandfather, serves as the perfect example of the disconnect between the two societal classes portrayed by the story’s hotel staff and their ‘customers.’ Instead of being willing to help, Oxenham brushes off Paul’s requests and treats him as if he his less than human, further solidifying the idea that these down-on-their-luck characters are really just worthless individuals undeserving of respect.
While the play is definitely tragic in the way it portrays the less than glamorous lives of the majority of its characters, it is not devoid of comic relief. The way Mona Lisa’s character uses a tissue to pick up the old rotary phone, and takes several minutes to lick the adhesive on an envelope just to mail a letter, definitely brings a bit of quirky humor to the show.
On top of taking on the pivotal role of Mrs. Oxenham, Mona Lisa was also cast to take on the role of Dopey, a new character written into the production by director Che Walker. Mona Lisa reveals her wide range as an actress through her portrayal of these two very different characters within the same production, something she accomplishes with astonishing ease.
As Dopey, one of the hotel’s resident hookers, Mona Lisa gives an engaging monologue about the struggles of being a prostitute in the lower rungs of society, where the girls continually spend their money to look glamorous in the eyes of their revolving door of Johns, have little left over for themselves and still battle the unceasing yearning for the familiar touch of true love– a sad cycle few are able to escape.
The young and lovably naive prostitute known as The Girl, played by Kayla Strada, gives us a little insight into how some of the older prostitutes started out their lives in the ‘business,’ probably holding onto a glimmer of hope that they would some day escape the murky underworld that’s sadly trapped them.
And then there is Jackie, played by Tatiana Olaya, a rebellious young thing who’s travelling with her little brother trying to gather enough money to start an organic farm back in Utah. After using all of her money to purchase the land for the farm (which she has yet to see), she goes about trying to convince Mr. Katz, the hotel manager played by Ninni Holm, to cosign a loan so she can get the start-up money she needs for the farm. But when that doesn’t work out, she decides to steal jewels from Morse’s room; however, she is caught and gets herself kicked out of the hotel. Even sadder than the fact that Jackie has no chance of really making a go of it with the farm, is that she leaves her brother Jamie, who’s not-all-there mentally, behind.
Through Millie, played by Johanna Schulte-Hillen, a retired waitress with a pension for reminiscing over the past, audiences are privy to a character who represents a different kind of ‘failed’ existence– one where the person doesn’t even reason that their life is in shambles. The character, who always seems to be telling ghost stories (that she clearly believes) in her somewhat soothing southern drawl, has a sweet, but melancholy quality about her– as if she had a beautiful future ahead of her at one point, but somehow took a turn for the worse.
The drama that ensues as the conflicting personalities of the characters clash, and the tragic, sometimes hard to swallow, display of their personal turmoil, kept viewers engaged throughout the run of the show. From the soon to be destroyed building, where hot water is simply not a thing and a working elevator is a memory long past, to the decaying youth of the play’s struggling band of prostitutes, “Hot L Baltimore” is imbued with themes of human struggle and cultural decay, and the actors involved do a marvelous job of breathing life into this 1973 play in the modern age.
“Hot l Baltimore” directed by Che Walker & produced by Rochelle Rossman. Dates: Feb. 5 – Feb. 19
Cast: Mona Lisa Abdallah, Liselotte Alfons, Anastasia Burenina, Christina Blum, Ana Roza Cimperman, Robert Oliver Gislason, Christian Hoha, Ninni Holm, Edward Macgregor, Tatiana Olaya, Johann Schulte-Hillen, Kayla Strada, Nuno Sousa and Abel Vivas