Family affair

Kitchen Dog dances an intimate but confused Baltimore Waltz

It's tempting (and just a little bit cheap) to read all kinds of incestuous undertones in Paula Vogel's poignant, occasionally acidic, three-actor comedy, The Baltimore Waltz, not the least because Vogel's newest Off-Broadway hit, How I Learned to Drive, has offended some in the New York theater community. That emotionally complex script about the sexual relationship between an uncle and his niece has been perceived by some as excusing, possibly even poeticizing, what the playwright has admitted is an autobiographical situation.

The Baltimore Waltz, Vogel's 1992 script about an adult brother and sister who take a surrealistic trip across Europe in pursuit of a rather far-fetched "alternative" cure for the sister's fatal disease, is equally unsparing in its personal revelation. Vogel's brother Carl asked Paula to accompany him on a European trip. She declined, only to discover not long before he died that he was HIV positive.

I must cut against the critical grain and say that Vogel's grasp of issues of mortality seems a little weak, compensated for by some contrived alliances between plot and theme that fit together uncomfortably. Whenever metaphors for AIDS and mortality take the stage in Kitchen Dog Theatre's frenetic production, Vogel's spotlight on the human heart dims. But when the play explores the cobwebby emotional corners of a brother-sister relationship--and, particularly, the parallel paths the characters' sexualities take into adulthood--I was riveted.

Which is where the incest suspicions enter. After all, brother Carl (Chris Carlos) and sister Anna (Tina Parker) slept together as children and share a mattress again on the European odyssey they undertake to elicit a quack's help. Anna's sickness is called "Acquired Toilet Disease," which she picked up in a public restroom and which, we're told, primarily afflicts unmarried female schoolteachers.

Of course, sleeping is all they do, and if you wanted to extend the interpretation of outlaw sexuality, you could add that they were involved in a menage à# trois...with Carl's stuffed bunny Jo Jo, which was always in the bed with them. Doesn't this imply pseudo-bestiality, topped off with a delicious nylon and cotton fetish?

In other words, the harder you try to hack through that Freudian jungle, the thicker the brush grows. Yet, there is a clear comparison going on between Anna, who's inexplicably decided to sleep with every willing man she can find on the continent, and Carl, whose homosexuality is alluded to in the first scene (he's fired from his job as a children's librarian for wearing a pink triangle to work) then buried in a rather vague parody of The Third Man. Carl becomes consumed in the hunt for a cure for his sister, yet pauses to indulge his aesthetic inclinations at museums. Anna, meanwhile, is pretty much driven by indiscriminate lust, leading her to block everything else out, including Carl and her disease.

Kevin Fabian plays "The Third Man," a title that puns on the fact he plays everyone else Carl and Anna encounter, from doctors to lovers. He is an impressively versatile comic actor, knowing how to wring laughs from a florid continental accent, but most of the roles he assumes are throwaways.

Tina Parker is a skilled actress who does all she can with Anna, but Vogel hasn't given her much to work with. The author introduces several facets of this character, then doesn't weave them in any satisfying way into the play's fabric. Vogel asks us to accept that Anna is boinking her way across Europe without explaining, or at least hinting, why she's chosen promiscuity as her last grand gesture. With no sense of the character's passions and fears, much less her sexual history, this particular plot engine feels more convenient than organic. When she beds an underage, naive French bellhop, she addresses him as she might one of her students back home. But we don't know anything about Anna the schoolteacher, beyond that we've been told she's a schoolteacher. With so little ground laid, what might have been a provocative little speech flies aimlessly around the stage like a balloon losing air.

And the whole Acquired Toilet Disease shtick is introduced as a satiric device, but never really applied to anything. We know, from reading the program notes, that the real Carl died of AIDS, but ATD doesn't follow any parallel path to HIV-related illness. And since she contracted it from a toilet seat, doesn't that suggest it's sexually transmissible? The issue could lend a certain danger, an extra oomph, to Anna's various dalliances, but it's never addressed.

Vogel might defend all these loose ends as part and parcel of the dream logic she's supposedly invoking. But dreams are meaningful precisely because they're reality scrambled, experience reassembled. With little of either to prop up Anna, Tina Parker must ultimately apply her talents in a reparative way. She's trying to give a scarecrow a blood transfusion.

Maybe it's a sign of Vogel's guilt that she pours much of her best material into the role of Carl. Chris Carlos is a grateful, articulate recipient of the playwright's gifts. He's a marvel of tightly wound energy from start to finish, hilarious and heartbreaking without ever collapsing into the worrywart mannerisms with which a lesser actor would festoon this role. His earnest enthusiasm is always just restrained by a brittle pessimism, in a way that reminded me of a young Jack Lemmon. Such comparisons are ultimately reductionist, of course, since Carlos' comic talents are hardly mere imitation. Watching him fret his way through customs over his stuffed bunny, or incite a group of children to make pink paper triangles for their art project, was sheer delight.

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