Goodman Studio Theatre

“It’s the language that terrifies me,” says Anna, the heroine of Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz, early in the play. At the time she’s speaking of foreign languages, her ignorance of which has prevented her from traveling to Europe. But The Baltimore Waltz is about the fear of language in general–its capacity for deceit and distortion and its capacity for honest communication. Which is worse? the play asks. Not hearing the truth? Or hearing it?

The truth at the core of The Baltimore Waltz is AIDS, which claimed the life of Vogel’s brother in 1988. But that reality is expressed only in the last scene of this short, inventive, weirdly whimsical comedy: in a sweetly sad encounter, a young Johns Hopkins University hospital doctor informs Anna of her brother Carl’s death. Up till then, The Baltimore Waltz spins out lie after lie, compressing and confusing the events of Anna and Carl’s lives into a bizarre fantasy adventure that’s part Lewis Carroll, part William S. Burroughs, and part Rocky and Bullwinkle.

The first lie comes when Anna proudly proclaims that Carl is head librarian of literature and languages at the San Francisco Public Library. In fact he’s a children’s librarian, and his main duty is reading stories to kids with names like Fabio and Tse Heng. (Who needs to go abroad to learn different languages?) When we meet Carl, he’s just been given a pink slip for wearing a pink triangle, international symbol of gay liberation. (Not all communication is verbal.) But though he’s lost his job, he’s got his health. (Another lie–the big one on which the play is based.)

In Anna’s imaginary adventure, it’s she who’s sick, not Carl. A first-grade teacher, she’s just been diagnosed with a mysterious, heavily stigmatized deadly illness called ATD–Acquired Toilet Disease–for which unmarried grade-school instructors are especially at risk. (“If word of this pestilence gets out inappropriately, the PTA is going to be all over the school system demanding mandatory testing of every toilet seat in every lavatory,” cautions a government spokesman. “It’s kindling for a political disaster.”) Anna’s response to her death sentence is blunt: “In whatever time this schoolteacher has left, I intend to fuck my brains out.” (Another lie. The real Anna, we see later, is shy and demure; this bawdy temptress is the woman she can be only in her dreams.)

So off Anna and Carl go to Europe, on a secret mission involving black-market drugs for Carl and a not-at-all-secret quest for as much sex as possible for Anna. Their journey from city to city and from bed to bed leads finally to the laboratory of one Dr. Todesrocheln, a flamboyant queen with a fetish for drinking piss. In a mad climax, he transforms into the nice young doctor at Johns Hopkins who must bring Anna the news of her brother’s death. In fact this doctor pops up in any number of guises throughout the play. He’s the little Dutch boy–long blond hair, oversize wooden shoes, and all–famous for sticking his thumb into the dike; he’s a worldly-wise French waiter who unbuttons his pants to serve “la specialite de la maison”; he’s a rude German radical who’s disappointed to learn that the American woman he’s just screwed is only a teacher, not a capitalist-swine stockbroker; and he’s Harry Lime, the underworld drug peddler from The Third Man, bent on stealing Carl’s cherished toy bunny.

Throughout these encounters–several of which are pretty sexually athletic–Anna and Carl explore the mysteries of language. Pidgin English and pig Latin collide with medical jargon and gay-subculture slang, while classroom dialogues in various foreign tongues instruct us in key phrases for dining, sex, and other traveling needs. Mary Zimmerman’s Goodman staging captures the quicksilver fluidity with which characters and locations metamorphose in Vogel’s script. Set designer Scott Bradley’s cool hospital hallway transforms convincingly into airports, hotel rooms, and side streets under Rita Pietraszek’s flexible lighting. And Christopher Donahue’s crisply etched characterizations as the chameleonic doctor complement Jenny Bacon’s tough but vulnerable Anna and Jerry Saslow’s enigmatic, slightly bitchy Carl.

Suffused with a bright, bratty wit that targets everything from sibling rivalry to government mishandling of the AIDS crisis to America’s arrogant, superior attitude toward the rest of the world, The Baltimore Waltz is a strange little play. Underneath its linguistic game playing is a deeply serious theme, which Vogel may feel quite personally; she has acknowledged that Anna and Carl’s trip was suggested by a trip she and her brother Carl postponed until, with his illness, it was too late. Survivor guilt is surely at the core of the script; but The Baltimore Waltz not only explores denial, it wallows in it. Sharp and funny when it’s farthest from the reality that inspired it and gives it meaning, it never grapples convincingly with that reality. It’s as if Vogel is bothered less by her brother’s death than by her own dilemma as a 90s writer: how do you speak of AIDS when open feeling isn’t hip? A little less whimsy and a good deal more direct feeling would make The Baltimore Waltz a much better play.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Lauren.