“The Baltimore Waltz,” the comedy-drama credited with putting playwright Paula Vogel on the map, is getting a rare staging by the Fern Theatre, a new local company. But despite a noble effort, it proves here to be less fresh and emphatic than it might have seemed a few decades ago.
Running through March 16 in 7 Stages Theatre’s black-box space, “Waltz” is a surreal play inspired by the relationship between Vogel and her brother. Anna (Eliana Marianes) is a teacher living in Baltimore who is diagnosed with a fictitious ailment called Acquired Toilet Disease (an obvious metaphor for AIDS), which she has contracted by sitting on a children’s toilet seat. Her gay brother Carl (Brandon Partrick), living in San Francisco, has been fired from his job and visits to help his sister grapple with her illness. They decide to take a trip to Europe, and while weaving their way through France, Holland and Germany, Carl navigates through some attempts to find black-market medicine. Meanwhile, Anna decides to have as much casual sex as she can, searching for some intimacy somewhere and realizing that her time is limited. Along the way, the pair have a number of encounters with a mysterious character called the Third Man (Stuart McDaniel, who plays a dozen or so other diverse roles as well).
“Waltz” is undeniably personal. Vogel’s brother Carl died of AIDS in 1988, a few years after he went on vacation in Europe. When the play premiered four years later, AIDS was still somewhat new, as was the search for drugs to combat it. Those issues are obviously still germane, but the major problem here is that despite Vogel’s intention, “Waltz” simply lacks the depth and cohesion of her later work, such as “How I Learned to Drive.”
It makes a sly political statement, to be sure, and pays tribute to her brother. But tonally, it’s just odd. Midway through, it turns into a series of sketches involving the siblings and the Third Man. Some of the quirks are intriguing, such as the references to the classic film noir “The Third Man.” Carl also carries along his stuffed rabbit Jo-Jo, a prized possession from childhood, in the hope of trading it for medicine. Other moments are madcap and a little nonsensical. Overall, “Waltz” is a bit of a curio, a farcical play that doesn’t have any emotional reach until a bittersweet ending, one that sheds a new perspective on the situation.
It doesn’t help that director Doug Graham’s cast is a little uneven. Marianes brings a chipper appeal to Anna but tends to overdo some scenes. Partrick underplays much of his part and at times could use more bounce. The MVP Award goes to McDaniel, who appears almost rapid fire as different characters interacting with Anna and Carl.
Graham and Jessica Fern Hunt started the Fern Theatre and mounted Steven Dietz’s “Private Eyes” in the fall; this is their sophomore effort. They clearly aren’t afraid to take on challenging material. Let’s hope they’ll continue to go after meaty fare. Their “Waltz,” though, is a little clumsy, with wavering tones that eventually step uncomfortably on each other.