“The Baltimore Waltz” prances in circles around its subject, which is the death of playwright Paula Vogel’s brother, Carl, in 1988. Vogel’s approach to her grief — a nation’s grief, as the country grappled with lost lives during the AIDS epidemic — was to fantasize. The 90-minute play, which debuted in 1992, imagines that it is the sister who is terminally ill and on a mysterious European vacation with her brother, but we know the truth.
That narrative distance is one of the most enduring things about this lovely, melancholy, difficult play, which is being revived by the Keegan Theatre in a production that captures a substantial portion of the drama’s best qualities. (Vogel is on a roll in Washington: This is her fourth play around town since September.) As Anna — a teacher diagnosed with the savagely named Acquired Toilet Disease — larks across the Continent with Carl, the plot’s buoyant imagination allowed Vogel to reanimate the spirit of her brother. The poignancy of that sleight of hand is unabated, especially as the relationship is knowingly played by Brianna Letourneau and Michael Innocenti.
Inescapably, you are reminded that the indirection of this fable also functioned as an indictment of an America that was reluctant to acknowledge itself, that still grappled with public policy and inadequate responses to a ravaging public health crisis. But Vogel quickly banishes moral outbursts of “Someone has to do something!” Instead, the play whisks into a tongue-in-cheek version of film noir terrain as Anna and Carl are shadowed everywhere by a “third man” (with deliberate shades of Orson Welles). Cue the zither music!
Like Carl, the third man totes a stuffed rabbit, and the two of them scurry off together for an unseen rendezvous. Or — same actor, different third man — he’s a young Dutch fellow, recounting his fable about the leaking dam with decidedly adult overtones before he beds Anna. Or he’s yet a different third man, a young German bellhop, also bedding Anna. (Naturally, this is a story with lots of sex.)
Ray Ficca plays these parts, plus a clutch of doctors ranging from strange to strait-laced; the improbable Dutch boy and a stereotypically cynical German are particularly vivid. But the fever-dream mood of the piece, ideally laced with more comic panache than is mined here, is the thing this dark, heavy-looking production doesn’t really master. The rigid wooden architecture of Matthew J. Keenan’s two-tiered set seems at war with Anna’s brisk fancies and grand delusions. The design’s angled expressionism isn’t the same thing as noir, with its shadowy romantic undercurrents.
Where Susan Marie Rhea’s production works is in the acting. There’s a game afoot, and Letourneau and Innocenti are quite good at a double consciousness that alerts you to their puzzle without tipping their hands. Their rapport is touching as he looks out for her; such are the play’s ironies and inversions.
The script has grown less devastating with time, which is good, though Tuesday’s audience still gasped at the Acquired Toilet Disease concept. The politics will never be rinsed out of this complex work; not for nothing does Carl get fired right off the bat for wearing a pink triangle. The memorializing impulse gets the upper hand, but the heady, vertiginous design makes it an apt, lasting reflection of the confusions in which it was written.
The Baltimore Waltz, by Paula Vogel. Directed by Susan Marie Rhea. Through Feb. 9 at the Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW. $20-$50. 202-265-3767. keegantheatre.com.