A curtain-warmer—the light cue projected onstage while the audience comes in—can tell you a lot. As people take their seats for Mark Brokaw’s production of The Baltimore Waltz, the curtain is up: We see a big, bright, yellowy room with large windows; the effect is all light and sunniness, with no shadows. In Anne Bogart’s original production, some 20 years ago at Circle Rep, a similar space was lit to seem cold, sterile, and shadowy. Like its curtain-warmer, Brokaw’s production serves Paula Vogel’s remarkable play cheerily and generously—but oh, how it needs that creepy coldness and those ominous shadows.
The Baltimore Waltz is a daringly topsy-turvy play, a puckish comedy about death, full of tricks and childish games and old-movie spoofs. Denial—a more somber game that adults play out of emotional necessity—is its essence. Carl (David Marshall Grant) is dying of AIDS in a Baltimore hospital; his sister Anna (Kristen Johnston) prefers to think that she’s the dying one (thanks to a nonsensical disease supposedly acquired in her work as a first-grade schoolteacher) and that she’s touring Europe with Carl rather than counting minutes in the lounge of an ICU. Their European “vacation” is a ragbag of sketches kidding gay stereotypes, national stereotypes, sibling rivalries, and the quack-ridden quest for a miracle cure.
But underneath it all, Carl is dying and Anna is lying to herself. That’s where the sunniness of Brokaw’s production stops short. The role of Anna needs an actress with a dark undertow. Johnston is an instantly lovable performer, but her big blonde presence, healthy energy cascading from her fingertips, has all the dark undertow of Ethel Merman belting an up tune. Grant manages his role with elegant charm, and Jeremy Webb handles the cartoony minor roles tolerably, but the darkness is hardly visible under all that smiling light.