Lanford Wilson's "The Hot I Baltimore," a commercial variation on two old themes, opens the Back Alley Theater's season of five productions at 1365 Kennedy St. NW.

Had Berlin's Adlon Hotel not been destroyed by bombs, this is what might have happened to Vicki Baum's "Grand Hotel." Instead of well-heeled insiders, Wilson's characters are seedy outsiders, dominated by the old tart-with-the-heart-of gold theme. These have hearts of sawdust.

Once a setting for posh socil balls, the old Baltimore Hotel is about to fall to the wrecker's ball. It's down-at-hell inhabitants, who've just received eviction notices, include the addled old, some equally addled young and prostitutes with their addled johns.

What always has bothered me about this play is the audience reaction. Its laughter consistently arises through perceptions of the ignorance of its characters. The viewer is flattered into a sense of superiortiy, laughing at, rather than with, the cynicism of the prosties, the innocence of the young and the cracked memories of the old. This is a trend through much modern drama, and inhumane cliche.

True, Wilson does make a pitch for sympathies. One prostitute, leaving for a flat of her own, does feel teary about leaving the only family she's ever had (ha!). Her sister-of-the streets takes kindly to a boy deserted by his sister (or does she have a little "Tea and Sympathy" in mind'). The earnest desk clear does have his law books. Milly, the waitress, does have her illusions about Old Smith plantations. So the compassion button is pressed for these folk of the dust heap. As if to be certain we're kept awake, Wilson includes the usual shock words and the effort of a prostitute to seduce a handsome young man, always a good gimmick with today's audiences.

Under Frederick Lee's direction, the limitations of the little theater are adroitly handled, but the cast is almost daringly erratic. As "The Girl," who changes her name daily, supposedly an idealist in her last teens, Cathay Lee Bomar, kept reminding me of Ann-Margret doing a Vegas act. As Milly, Evelyn Woolston never suggests either a waitress or the Gulf Coast. Kitty Fitzgibbon, as the smart-talking prostie, does suggest Eve Arden. Caron Tate bravely bares her breasts as smut-spouting Suzy. John Vorhess, however, is impressivly in control as old Mr. Morse and Oran Sandel brings a passive dignity to the lad who's trying to track down his grandfather, even though laden with that familiar speech about his materialistic parents.

Performances are Thursday through Sundays.