Rep Stage's production of 'The Baltimore Waltz' searches for the balance between comedy and tragedy

"The Baltimore Waltz," the 1992 show that made Maryland playwright Paula Vogel's national reputation, is an AIDS play that never mentions the word "AIDS." Vogel trusts her audience enough to never explain what's fantasy and what's reality in her story about a sister and a brother struggling with a deadly disease. But the author gives us plenty of clues, and by the time we put all the pieces together in our heads, we have become well-rewarded participants in this tale of both confronting and avoiding death.

Though the show is quite moving at the end, it is more often funny in its borrowings from famous movies, its parody of American tourists in Europe, and its bawdiness. Such a light touch is possible only because most of the play is fantasy. It quickly leaves a Johns Hopkins Hospital bed where the brother is dying and flies off to an imaginary Europe where the sister is dying from ATD (Acquired Toilet Disease), contracted, just as her mother had always warned, from the toilet seats in public restrooms.

In the new production at Howard County's Rep Stage, the sister is a first-grade teacher named Anna (Philadelphia's Michelle Eugene) who tours Europe in a brown trench coat and a black lace satin slip. The brother is a gay librarian named Carl (Washington's Ben Cunis) who never changes out of his pajamas from London to Vienna.

The third actor in this production, Sasha Olinick, plays multiple roles, including a doleful Hopkins doctor, a haughty Parisian waiter, a sputtering Berlin radical, a naive Dutch teenager, and a crazed Euro urologist. Anna sleeps with several of them, though it's not clear if she's doing it to defy her own death sentence or her brother's.

The balance between comedy and tragedy in "The Baltimore Waltz" is crucial, and in this production, director Suzanne Beal and the two male actors often broaden the jokes till the humor becomes less character-driven and more situation-driven, which is unfortunate.

Compensating for this is the terrific performance by Eugene. She makes the evolution of this dowdy, grieving American schoolteacher into a wild woman in Europe seem gradual and convincing, each step punctuated by doubt and depression. She lends a sparkle to Vogel's smart wordplay and borrowings from such movies as "The Third Man," "Wuthering Heights," and "Dr. Strangelove."

"The Baltimore Waltz" continues at Rep Stage through Sept. 13.

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