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‘The Baltimore Waltz’ by Paula Vogel Opens Off-Broadway

February 12, 1992

NEW YORK (AP) _ In 1986, playwright Paula Vogel was invited by her brother to travel to Europe with him. She declined, only to learn later he had tested positive for the AIDS virus. In two years, he was dead.

Out of that trip that never happened came ″The Baltimore Waltz,″ which arrived Tuesday at off-Broadway’s Circle Repertory Company. Yet don’t expect a solemn memorial of sisterly devotion or guilt. The play is a wild, often funny, dark fantasy, a surreal comedy about family and friendship and the loss of both.

In two dozen or so short scenes, Vogel follows a brother and sister through a desperate European grand tour. Their journey makes for an unpredictable ride that draws on a crazy quilt of sources for its inspiration. Vogel uses, among other things, foreign language lessons, references to old movies, medical mumbo jumbo, government rhetoric and a sharp sense of the absurd to make her points.

The basic premise is richly satiric. And the playwright, aided by director Anne Bogart’s inventive direction, delivers much of the time. Anna, a first- grade teacher in Baltimore, and Carl, a recently laid-off San Francisco librarian, are in search of a cure. The woman, it seems, has contracted the always fatal ATD, Acquired Toilet Disease.

″Cut down in the prime of youth by a toilet seat?″ she cries. Her mother was right about not using public restrooms. Anna will try any remedy including an unorthodox one offered by an 80-year-old Viennese urologist, a Sid Caesar in a blond curly fright wig.

Carl also has some unusual resources including an old college roommate not unlike a character out of ″The Third Man.″ This guy peddles hope, the only sure way to become a billionaire, he says.

In the course of their travels, Anna passes through Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ six stages of dying and into a seventh stage the psychiatrist may not have considered: lust.

The woman plans to bed everyone she meets - a French waiter; an aging little Dutch boy, the famous one who stuck his finger in the dike; a virginal Munich bellhop and an angry, oversexed Berlin student revolutionary who preys on foreign women.

Her brother, dressed throughout the play in pajamas and blue blazer, has his own peculiarities, too. Everywhere he goes, he carries a stuffed white rabbit with floppy ears. He meets with strange men who also carry stuffed rabbits. What is the secret these men possess, which brother is so unwilling to share with sister?

A forthright Cherry Jones manages to make Anna likable and determined at the same time, while Richard Thompson is properly enigmatic as her brother. All the other characters are played by the protean Joe Mantello, a deadpan little fellow who scores best as the over-the-hill Dutch boy with a fading Buster Brown haircut and the radical German student who majors in obnoxiousness.

Designer Loy Arcenas has placed the actors in an antiseptic hospital waiting room that can change to any European setting just by moving a sofa or two.

Vogel saves the evening’s most startling scene for the end of the play when, just for a moment, it lurches back to reality and life’s inevitable, heartbreaking consequences.

Then Carl, suddenly dressed like the hero of ″The Student Prince,″ appears again and dances off with his sister as the strains of a Strauss waltz fill the air.

If the outcome of ″The Baltimore Waltz″ is not in doubt, it still makes for an imaginative journey by an imaginative playwright who has turned her grief into an effective - and affecting - piece of theater.

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