Lanford Wilson

Hot l Baltimore

Discovering a real playwright taught me I'm not.

Lanford was staying with a mutual friend in Chicago while he negotiated a movie contract and continued writing Hot l Baltimore.

My career had taken quite a different course, but writing is writing, whether the work is created for an audience in a theatre or a person using a computer.

I watched Lanford work out the endless details in his new play and realized that the play I wrote for in high school wasn't even close. I decided to stick to writing about computers and we decided to become friends.


Lanford was intrigued with the title depicting a run-down hotel with the letter "e" in the neon marque conspicuously unlit. He was concerned some people would misprint the title as Hot L Baltimore, completely missing the point. As it turned out, almost everybody got it right.

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As Lanford first envisioned it, the play was a significant departure from several conventions. I'll let him describe the details:

My first thoughts with Baltimore were to open things up with a couple of prostitutes, a leading gay character, and a nude scene carefully staged and not the least erotic. But my actual departure came in my reassessment of time related to the theatre.

Baltimore doesn't begin or end in the usual sense. It's already happening when the audience arrives, and it continues after the characters and the audience retire for the evening. For all we know, it is still happening somewhere in Maryland.

The theatre lobby is staged like the lobby of a typical somewhat seedy hotel. There are picture postcards for sale, a potted palm in the corner, and several bored residents reading the paper, playing checkers, and otherwise occupied. As patrons arrive, they gradually discover that the play is already in progress. They migrate to the theater -- a continuation of the lobby -- and join the actors already on stage.

Baltimore doesn't begin. It already is. There are absolutely no light cues.

The ending is a mirror. The actors retire for the evening and return to their rooms, leaving the lobby deserted. The audience eventually decides to go home. The lights remain on.

One thing that worries me is the actors' response. Will they be willing to skip the all-important curtain call -- which would destroy everything I've planned?

And finally, is Baltimore even producible?

To my knowledge, Lanford's original vision we discussed has not been performed on stage entirely as he envisioned.  It would be even more challenging to create in film.

Many years later, I was in New York and decided to catch whatever was playing at The Circle in the Square.

       "One?" I asked at the ticket counter.

       "You're not from around here, are you?"

       "I'm stuck on a layover and know whatever you're showing is always enjoyable."

       "This is a special press opening of a new play, and it's completely sold out. But I have a pass left, and somebody is bound to no-show. So here, with my compliments."

I entered the lobby, and there it was: picture postcards for sale, a potted palm, actors playing checkers.

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