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Wednesday, December 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 35.0° F  Overcast
Arts
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Life on the margins in Madison Theatre Guild's Hot l Baltimore
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The residents have just learned that the hotel is scheduled to be razed.
The residents have just learned that the hotel is scheduled to be razed.

Madison Theatre Guild begins the new year with two shows running in repertory at the Bartell Theatre, Hot l Baltimore and Tarantara, Tarantara. I took in Lanford Wilson's Hot l Baltimore on opening night and came away disliking the play but admiring the performances.

The show takes place in the lobby of the once venerable Hotel Baltimore, where the blown-out "e" from its neon sign is symptomatic of larger problems. It is Memorial Day, and the residents have just learned that the hotel has been condemned and is scheduled to be razed in 30 days. The ensemble cast is populated with marginalized individuals: prostitutes, the elderly, jaded hotel employees and riffraff. Some are rankled by the news of their impending eviction, while others are preoccupied with just getting through the day.

The first act, with its many overlapping conversations that introduce us to the cast, comes across as shrill and irritating. I spent the first intermission thinking up snarky lines to use in this review , like "Hot l is a hot mess." But the second and third acts are a big improvement, allowing the audience to appreciate some of the characters (and actors) as we get to know them.

There is some real talent in the cast. As longtime resident Millie, Patricia Kugler Whitely brings a serenity to the role and is particularly good recounting a tale from her childhood in Lousiana. Sarah O'Hara has a challenging part as the pushy and unlikable Jackie, who is desperate to escape the city with her brother. We see her vulnerability when she reveals her obsession with health food and her hopes to become a farmer out west. Ray Olderman as the crotchety Mr. Morse is prone to angry outbursts, and his fit over a game of checkers brings genuine laughs. Paul Milisch has a subtle turn as Bill, the world-weary desk clerk.

The trio of prostitutes are well played. Jessica Jane Witham brings the right amount of sass as the sardonic April. Julie Logue as Suzy has great gams and a manic laugh. Lauren Collins Peterson as "the girl" (she tries on several names) is consumed with trains and geography. She tries to connect with the other residents with her youthful energy and endless questions. She's inspired to assist a young man in solving the mystery of his missing grandfather and is crushed when he gives up. It's a testament to Peterson's appeal that I came to care for the girl, because the character can be fairly grating.

Set designer Charles Jen Trieloff's lobby is masterful and quite authentic-looking, a hodgepodge of antiques that, like the hotel and its residents, have seen better days. Sarah Marty's 1970s costumes strike the right tone with polyester and wild prints.

In his program notes, director Sam White refers to the edginess of Wilson's play, which debuted off-Broadway in 1973. Bxut now, while its theme of decaying cities and the plight of their at-risk citizens still resounds, I found some of the provocative elements a bit less than provocative. It's clear that White is committed to honoring Wilson's work, but when it comes down to it, I just don't like the text that much.

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