In 1986, Paula Vogel’s brother, Carl, invited her on a trip to Europe—because of time and money, she declined, not knowing that he was HIV positive. He died two years later. As an act of expiation, she wrote The Baltimore Waltz in 1990, a tragicomic daydream of what that excursion might have been.
“It’s the language that terrifies me,” says Anna (Monica O’Malley de Castillo), Ms. Vogel’s alter ego, in the opening scene of the play. Ostensibly, she is speaking about French or German, about words like brioche and bildungsroman, but there is more going on here than that. The Baltimore Waltz never explicitly mentions AIDS or homosexuality—it is something of an extended, theatrical euphemism. In it, Anna is diagnosed with ATD (Acquired Toilet Disease), a hushed up problem that is ravaging single schoolteachers across the country. Brother and sister scurry off to the continent—Carl (David Mangiamele) visiting museums, Anna fucking her brains out—with the ultimate destination of the office of Dr. Todesrocheln (Justin Lauro), a urologist whose experiments with urine offer Anna hope. Carl is also negotiating some kind of deal with The Third Man (Mr. Lauro), a trench coated racketeer who deals in black market medication.
Terrified of the language, then, Ms. Vogel the playwright and Anna the character descend into an unsustainable fantasy, filled with silly, Graham Greene subplots and a plethora of pussyfooting; in all seriousness, a doctor (Mr. Lauro) asks her, “Where did you make wa-wa?” while a scandalized waiter (Mr. Lauro), after being fingered in his anus, insists, “Only the Germans have a word for that!” Medical language is too cold and gay language is too revealing. We don’t even get the common coding of the decade, like “down low” or “friends of Dorothy.” The Baltimore Waltz is a sustained verbal defense against reality.
Which makes the moments of truth all the more devastating. In the play’s most powerful scene, Carl shows the audience photos of their trip abroad, but the slides projected behind him are not of the gateway to the Rhine or gothic churches in Köln, as he claims they are, but of Johns Hopkins Hospital and inner-city Baltimore.
Unfortunately, the current production of The Baltimore Waltz running at the Canal Park Playhouse suffers from a rather weak cast. Admittedly, Mr. Lauro does a fine job juggling all the supporting roles. His voice and demeanor effectively change at a rapid pace, from the hard-boiled, even tempo of the Third Man to the high-pitched, cracked shrieks of the Dr. Strangelove descendant, Todesrocheln. But both Mr. Mangiamele and Ms. O’Malley de Castillo fail to balance his antics with any emotional depth; the repressed suffering, just on the cusp of exploding, is simply not there, leaving us a little empty and confused at the play’s end.
The same year that The Baltimore Waltz premiered Off-Broadway (1992), Jeanette Winterson published a beautiful novel, Written on the Body, an emotional and narrative kindred spirit of Ms. Vogel’s play. It should be able to tide over any curious theatergoers until a more worthy production of The Baltimore Waltz arrives in New York.