Jonathan J. Miner
Erin S. Baal in Strollers Theatre's The Baltimore Waltz
I can't quite figure out the Strollers Theatre production of The Baltimore Waltz (through Nov. 1 at the Bartell Theatre), but that's okay. Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel, The Baltimore Waltz creates a strange and sometimes funny dreamscape where things don't make sense and aren't supposed to.
For Vogel, who famously said, "I only write about things that directly impact my life," this is an especially personal play. She lost her brother Carl to AIDS in the late 1980s. Shortly afterward, she began work on The Baltimore Waltz.
The play tells the story of a character named Carl and his sister Anna. As the show opens, Anna has been diagnosed with a terminal illness: Acquired Toilet Disease. Carl has been fired from his job as a librarian because, as he explains, "I wear this: a pink triangle," pointing to a pink triangle button pinned to his lapel.
The pair set off for Europe, seeking adventure and, hopefully, a cure for Anna's sickness. Along the way, in every train station and restaurant, they are met by someone called the Third Man (Sean Langenecker). The Third Man's accent and costume change: He's a busboy, a police officer, a doctor -- but he's always there and always wearing blue surgical gloves.
Langenecker brings a powerful energy to the stage. Some of his accents are laughably bad (likely intentional), but he commits to each role as if it's his one moment on stage. His character provides large doses of comic relief throughout the show. As a drunk Dutch man telling a story, he stumbles and swings his beer mug passionately, wearing a blond wig that looks like it was snipped off of a Barbie doll. As a timid bellhop who finds himself in bed with Anna, he curls into himself, snaking his way into his pants before shuffling away.
Wide-eyed and with a face so expressive it seemed to be made of putty, Erin S. Baal is a good fit as Anna. Anna alternates between mourning her prognosis and embracing a lusty determination to seize life by the horns, which, in her case, means sleeping with any man who'll have her. She wants to "make up for lost time."
John Jajewski's Carl is likable but bland, which suits the role. Carl craves his sister's attention while remaining strangely unchanged as they face her illness. He moves through the show like a pleasant zombie.
The play is structured as series of surreal, quick-moving vignettes. There’s a major twist in the plot, but, on opening night, the reveal felt too delayed. In fact, the audience should know right away -- spoiler alert -- that it's not Anna who's sick but Carl. If this isn't clear from the start, the play isn't as effective as it could be.
The Baltimore Waltz feels like a riddle: full of symbols that aren't easily figured out. Instead of delivering a tidy message, it aims to capture the brutal weirdness of loss.