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A CurtainUp Review

The Baltimore Waltz

I don't actually think this is a play about AIDS-- it's a play about processing grief. It's about the love between brothers and sisters. People who are grieving when they've come to see the play, tell me that it's a way to get in touch with their joy. And there's a lot of joy in grief, there's a lot of celebration to grief, there's a lot of comedy in grief.
--- Paula Vogel, POZ Magazine, 1998.
Joan Marcus
Kristen Johnston (Photo: Joan Marcus)
It doesn't happen often but when it does, Wow! What I'm talking about is going to a small theater to see a play you know nothing about, written by an unknown playwright and starring an equally unknown actress.

Such a Wow! experience happened to me a dozen years ago when I went to see The Baltimore Waltz at the Circle Rep, a tiny venue in Greenwich Village. The unknown playwright was Paula Vogel and the actress playing the teacher caught up in Vogel's daringly comic and heart-stirring theatrical eulogy to the brother she lost to AIDS was Cherry Jones.

It wasn't a perfect play, but the playwright's willingness to apply a quirky absurd humor to this shattering event movingly illustrated the theater's power to help us deal with such difficult personal and public traumas. With Jones playing Anna, the playwright's stand-in, and Joe Mantello as the brother taking his sister on a whirlwind, last grab at life trip through Europe, I was stirred by that special excitement that comes with being in on the start of three extraordinary careers. Jones went on to distinguish herself on and off-Broadway, most recently in John Patrick Shanley's new play Doubt, and Mantello, after another major role in Tony Kushner's Angels In America, proved himself equally gifted as a director.

Paula Vogel, was awarded an Obie for Waltz and several seasons later garnered a Pulitzer for How I Learned to Drive. She is currently being honored with her own season at the Signature Theater which brings us back to Baltimore Waltz, the second in the Signature's triple play Vogel celebration.

Written as it was at a time when little was known about AIDS, the play no longer is quite the shocker it was. Some of the details may seem dated. Younger audience members may not understand the reality of the desperate search for drugs or the connection between Carl's having the kids at the library where he worked cut pink triangles from construction paper and the pink triangles homosexuals were forced to wear by the Nazis. But then, as Vogel puts it, this is not so much a play about AIDS as it is a play about coping with grief. Viewed from that perspective it holds up. In fact, and this doesn't happen often with someone who sees as many plays as I do, after eighty minutes of much laughter, The Baltimore Waltz had me in tears. Maybe it's because I'm a dozen years older and have experienced more close encounters with the Grim Reaper, but whatever the reason, I related more strongly than ever to Vogel's ability to find comedy in grief without squelching the tears.

While The Baltimore Waltz and Cherry Jones have long been inextricably linked in my mind, the satisfaction dished up by this revival, owes much to the current cast. Like Jones, Kristen Johnston is imposingly tall and has a distinctive voice. She's sexier and plays comic insouciance better than vulnerability and despair, but she gives a robust performance. Mark Brokaw, who has been Vogel's most sure-handed director has seen to it that Johnston is well supported by the two other actors, as well as a mood and story supporting design team.

David Marshall Grant is quite fine as the brother who whisks Anna away to Europe when she acquires a mysterious fatal illness (Anna's Acquired Toilet Disorder, besides giving the play its quirky twist, gives the always political playwright a chance to satirize the public's and government's response to the AIDS crisis). In one non-verbal scene at the end, Grant unforgettably brings us face to face with the terrifying reality in which Carl and Anna's dance with death is rooted.

To abet Carl's cloak and dagger routines in his effort to procure black market medication for Anna, Jeremy Webb plays the mysterious stuffed rabbit carrying Third Man, an apt overall title as this character represents a sly homage to the Carol Reed movie with the same name. Webb also plays assorted German, French and Dutch lovers, an American and a Viennese doctor, the latter named Todesrocheln which is German for "death rattle." This actor's comic quick change artistry is on a par with the two actors in The Mystery of Irma Vep. He effortlessly switches personas and accents, and slips in and out of Michael Krass's inventive costumes -- including a side-splittingly funny outfit for a fifty-year old Little Dutch Boy who's yet another man with whom Anna indulges her neglected sensual pleasures as if each day were her last.

Jan Hartley's projections neatly establish the locales and sights visited and the inclusion of Anna's hometown (Baltimore) poignantly underscores the fantasy that propels her journey. Neil Patel's spare set with its white canvas screens and pull curtains works well with the occasional shadow play.

Audiences may prefer their theatrical tales about dealing with the loss of a beloved family member packaged in a more straightforward format -- like Billy Crystal's just opened anecdotal play which is a tribute to the dad with whom he had only "700 Sundays." Still, if the packed house at the matinee press performance I attended (with people sitting on the aisle steps) is any indication, there'll be no shortage of people who want to attend Ms. Vogel's off-beat eulogy to the brother she loved.

How I Learned to Drive
The Long Christmas Ride Home
Mineola Twins
The Oldest Profession (The first of the Signature's Vogel season)

Written by Paula Vogel
Directed by Mark Brokaw
Cast: David Marshall Grant, Kristen Johnston and Jeremy Webb.
Set Design: Neil Patel
Costume Design:Michael Krass
Lighting Design: Mark McCullough
Sound Design: David Van Tieghem and Jill B. C. Duboff
Original Music:David Van Tieghem
Projections: Jan Hartley
Running time: 85 minutes, without an intermission
Peter Norton Space, 555 W. 42nd St. or 212/ 244-7529.
11/16/04 to 1/09/05; opening 12/05/04.
Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8pm, with matinees on Saturday and Sundays at 3pm.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on December 4th press performance
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