By Simone Ritchie
There’s something strangely fascinating about watching strangers plod through the monotony of everyday life, making decisions and mistakes as we look on, utterly intrigued. At its best, the Purchase College Junior Acting Company’s mounting of “The Hot L Baltimore” is exactly that: a people-watching exhibit. Confined within the lobby of a crumbling hotel and taking place over the span of one Memorial Day in the 1970s, “Hot L” focuses on the band of misfits that call the building home, and how they react to the news of the hotel’s eminent closing. Directed by Chris McCann, the production allows the audience to be a fly on the wall observing these characters and their slapstick antics.
The play features a colorful assortment of characters; aspiring farmers and hookers with hearts of gold. An old woman who claims to have had brushed elbows with the paranormal and an older man who has a competitive streak when it comes to Checkers. Together, they all live under the roof of the “Hot L Baltimore” (with a missing ‘E’ due to some burnt out bulbs in the hotel’s neon sign). Their antics range from the sentimental– labor farm escapee Paul (Brandon Ocasio) arriving at the hotel to learn about his grandfather who once lived in the hotel and is aided by the Girl (Owen Laheen) in his search efforts–to the completely absurd, with eccentric prostitute Suzy (Makenna Zur Schmiede) believing that the best way to prove her point in an argument at the end of the first act is to disrobe in front of everyone in the hotel lobby.
“Hot L” was originally produced off-Broadway in 1973 and would go on to inspire a Norman Lear sitcom of the same name. Although the TV series didn’t last long, the play feels very much like a televised comedy. Doors open and close and characters stomp up and down the hotel staircase, creating a punchy rhythm that plays throughout the show. The dialogue sizzles and characters often speak over one another, creating the kind of cacophony only created amongst groups of people who’ve grown comfortable with one another – perhaps too comfortable. Lanford Wilson’s droll comedy hits audiences with a one-two punch, its humor largely stemming from the wit of its characters.
Delivering the brunt of the wise cracks is Hillary Jones as April, a seasoned prostitute who has seems to have a quip ready to go at a moment’s notice. Jones oozes sex appeal and sarcasm, and her deft delivery of the jokes she’s been given is superb. Other standout performances include Blaise Wopperer as Mr. Morse, a checker-loving man who’s still spry despite his age, Meaghan Johnson’s neurotic health food enthusiast Jackie, and Malik Reed’s rubber faced portrayal of Bill, the keeper of the hotel’s front desk.
As the play moves along, it loses steam, feeling more and more like the hotel’s shutting down. Some storylines get wrapped up, like farmer wannabe Jackie leaving town to claim the infertile land she’s purchased through a radio ad and leaving her brother Jamie (Gabriel Bradley) behind to fend for himself. Others, not so much – we never learn what comes of Paul’s search for his grandfather, even when older resident Millie (Mackenzie Baughman) hints at knowing something – or maybe not. Although the play slows down, the pacing naturally allows the audience to properly say goodbye to the characters they’ve grown to love, no matter how seedy they seem.
There’s a lot of mystery that “Hot L” leaves its audience with, but perhaps that’s all for the better. We don’t need to know about the hotel’s ultimate demise, because that’s not what’s important. The audience has only been granted a quick snapshot of these lives, and no matter how entertaining or lovable these people are, the audience’s voyeurism must come to an end, much like a stay at any hotel.