With its combination of fantasy, cultural reference, and turned tables in treating a serious subject, mortality, Paula Vogel’s “The Baltimore Waltz” is director-dependent.
Make it too serious, and the comic jauntiness Vogel imposes can come across as recklessly silly or whimsy for whimsy’s sake. Go too far with the comedy, and salient points Vogel makes about coping with impending death and a yen for life that accompanies it can get lost in mayhem.
A delicate balance is called for, and Nico Krell provides it in Princeton Summer Theater’s production of “The Baltimore Waltz,” at Hamilton Murray Theater through Sunday, August 19.
Krell deftly eases the sudden yet subtle shift from the literal to the imagined in Vogel’s piece by keeping the transition clear and acceptable as metaphor, so the PST audience can immediately adjust to changes in the nature of a terminal illness and the person likely to succumb to it.
Vogel underscores a serious subject, the scourge of AIDS in the 1980s and a laxity in some quarters to mobilize against it, by moving into an alternative realm, a comic, invented universe where travelling to find a possible cure and adventures, both ominous and sexual, are a constant part of the story.
The juxtaposition of the real and the outrageous creates slippery dramatic ground that Krell and a game cast of three tread with aplomb.
For all of Vogel’s loops, dodges, and changes of pace, PST’s “Baltimore Waltz” remains breezily entertaining, fun actually, while never taking its eye off the fact that one its characters is mortally ill.
Vogel wrote “The Baltimore Waltz” in 1989. It is a dramatist’s reaction to the death of her brother from AIDS, or “complications from AIDS,” as would have been said at the time, in 1986. The lead character, Carl, is named for Vogel’s brother, and in a program note, Krell pictures Vogel devising the play while she sits in a Johns Hopkins waiting room as Carl is fading from AIDS in a nearby room.
Baltimore figures into Krell’s production in interesting ways. In one sequence, in which Carl (Sean Peter Drohan) is showing slides of a European trip he took with his dying sister, Anna (Abby Melick), the photos are all of Baltimore, including a shot of Johns Hopkins.
Various hospitals are visited in Vogel’s script, and the PST production does well by having as its basic setting a realistic hospital corridor handsomely designed by Jeffrey Van Velsor. In addition to standing for clinics all over the world, this set leaves Krell and cast a lot of open space in which to operate.
Vogel is full of dramatic tricks, many of them abetted by a third actor, Evan Gedrich, who plays a panoply of characters ranging from a corps of horny European bellhops to doctors bearing bad news and even the famous Little Dutch Boy, at age 50, regaling tourists with his heroic feat involving the dike.
Humor and irony are Vogel’s tools. Though it’s clear a gay man has left San Francisco to be examined at John Hopkins for perplexing health issues, Vogel goes topsy-turvy by having the man’s sister, a resident of Baltimore, become the one who is diagnosed with a fatal malady.
The playwright gets much mileage out of the disorder she chooses to bestow on Anna, and more from sending the brother and sister on a pre-planned trip to Europe, one stop being Vienna, where a doctor of equally grand and shady repute may have the antidote that can save Anna’s life.
This cure is not approved or available in the United States and may not be for ages, a true enough condition of the early AIDS era when Vogel would be aware people went to France and other countries to seek treatments that could not be proffered at home.
Once again taking an indirect route to add some fun and mystery to her piece, Vogel reveals the potent medicine is expensive and makes the means by which Carl intends of pay for it into an international intrigue. This is where “The Third Man” references come in, Carl always being off on some risky mission while Anna, whose disease only resembles AIDS in being unquestionably terminal, plans to have as much sex as she can before she dies. That’s where Gedrich’s randy hotel workers enter the picture.
Vogel may go too far and become too fanciful for her play to work, but Krell and company always keep logic and proportion in hand and make this sprawling piece look as if it has clockwork structure.
The production is always in the moment so each sequence is its own reward. Fast, broad humor carries the day. While Drohan and Melick often have to be straightforward, Gedrich can take his cadre of characters into wilder dimensions. Each of the actors has a collection of looks and leers that communicate comic volumes, but Gedrich gets to sail more frequently into satire or oversized parody of a familiar figure or situation.
Drohan makes the most of Carl’s sarcasm and sense of playfulness while Melick runs the gamut of a woman concerned first for her brother’s health, then for her own, and who finally opts for unbridled abandon on the sexual front.
A lot happens, and some scenes seem to come from left field, but Krell always manages to harness the various elements Vogel throws at him and keep this “Baltimore Waltz” coherent and entertaining. Given how hard it can be to hold this play together, he and his cast rate kudos for their achievement.
Van Velsor’s set does its versatile best throughout the production. Lighting designer Megan Berry also contributes much to enhance scenes or to divert attention so a comic or noirish moment can be set up. Video, in the form of newscasts, announcements, and occasional character revelations play a big and amusing part in Krell’s staging. No one is given specific credit for these segments, but Van Velsor is listed as technical director, and Mark Schafer is listed as his assistant, so praise can be sent their way, and they can pass it on if they are not responsible for the televised segments.
The Baltimore Waltz, Princeton Summer Theater, Hamilton Murray Theater, Princeton University. Continues Wednesday through Sunday, August 15 to 19. $24.50 to $29.50. 732-997-0205 or www.princetonsummertheater.org.