You'll be as shocked as I at this, but the Point Park University production of Hot L Baltimore is the first time I've seen this Lanford Wilson play. Shocked because Wilson is one of America's most important and frequently produced playwrights, Hot L is one of his most famous plays and, at this desk, I've pretty much seen every play ever written.
How I managed to miss it is anybody's guess. But I'm certainly glad to cross it off my list thanks to this handsome, sturdily built production.
Wilson is the poet laureate of the "small" people: The characters in such Wilson plays as 5th of July, Burn This and the Pulitzer-winning Tally's Folly are never outrageously outfitted personalities or bigger-than-life melodramatic creations. They're intensely human, just struggling to get through the day.
Hot L is no exception. Set in a seedy, condemned fleabag hotel (with the letter "e" missing in the sign ...), it depicts characters just one step away from complete oblivion: a couple of prostitutes, poverty-stricken senior citizens and several others barely existing on the fringe.
The whole thing, written in 1973, is awash in what is now known as "'70s malaise": If the hotel is days away from destruction, its inhabitant are perhaps even fewer. And yet most of them have settled into their fate -- too tired or too accustomed to heartbreak to expect more -- and the few who haven't given in struggle for something better only to see their futures collapse.
All that sounds rather bleak, I know, but inside Wilson's writing -- and certainly inside this play -- is a quiet grace, a bittersweet slice of humanity that may not be fun in the living but is fascinating in the watching. I can't, honestly, say that this is my favorite play, or even my favorite Wilson play, but you can certainly understand how this work helped cement his reputation.
Richard Keitel is the perfect director for this somewhat sprawling play; his relentless, if not ruthless attention to detail and the work's smaller moments help anchor Wilson's larger themes as well as ground this student company. Textured performances like these kids give don't just happen, and I'd be very surprised to hear that each cast member hadn't come away from this production without learning a great deal about acting.
The Hot L Baltimore continues through Feb. 8. Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland. 412-621-4445 or www.pittsburghplayhouse.com