Looking in on Life in Lanford Wilson’s “HOT L Baltimore”

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Most directors would feel nervous if their first rehearsal were two days before curtain.

But not Brian Clemente. He’s not worried. His actors know their lines. And the relationship building is already done.

“It’s never ideal,” he said with a laugh. “Luckily, it’s a little easier for me because I know every single person I’ve asked to be involved. In many cases, I worked with them a lot before and I know they work they can do. Sometimes, when you go into a production, you’re casting people you don’t as well, and it takes time to build that trust, but we have that. I’m counting on the energy to really be great in the room when we start.”

Brian Clemente directs Carolann DiPirro and Steven Hamilton. Courtesy photo.

On Thursday morning, Clemente and his cast of 13 will meet at the Southampton Arts Center — all together for the first time — for their first reading of Lanford Wilson’s play “Hot L Baltimore.”

It will stage as simply that on Saturday night — and for one night only.

“One thing I’m really focused on is presenting the play in a very straight-forward way,” the director said. “In a production, you get more of an opportunity to make it your own. You have lots of different elements with tech and with actors and with costumes and with all these things you don’t have in a reading.

“You can add them, but I think the focus gets lost,” he continued, “and my focus is very much to present the play and let the play shine through, and hear the play in an honest way, and show it off for all its worth.”

Opening in February 1973, “Hot L Baltimore” was the first major success for Wilson and his theater company, the Circle Repertory Company. It would set an Off-Broadway record of 1,166 performances, after playing Off-Off-Broadway for a month, and critics and audiences alike related to with the play’s colorful cast of characters and their impending fate.

Lanford Wilson

“On the surface, not a ton of stuff is happening; there is no big action. But the more and more you get into it, there’s really somuch going on in these characters’ worlds,” Clemente said. “Even though it’s not what we think of as this huge dramatic action, there really is a lot going on, and there’s so much to dive in and explore with these characters.”

Set in the 1970s, The Hotel Baltimore used to be the swankiest place in town, and now has a date with the wrecking ball. The dilapidated old hotel — from which the “e” in sign in missing, hence the name “Hot L Baltimore” — is buzzing with new uncertainty from its residents, a group of societal outcasts who call this place home.

“I do think that even though the play is specific to Baltimore and really glued into that setting — and certainly of a time gone by — that’s what makes it so universal,” Clemente said. “People can relate to not so much the setting and the specifics, but the notion of change and longing. And all of these characters are people who, ideally, maybe wouldn’t have ended up at this hotel.”

They live on the fringes of society as prostitutes and illegal immigrants and rejects — some middle-aged, some elderly and grouchy, and some eccentric. They are an oddball bunch who find comfort in one another, Clemente said, concerned with the ambiguous future of the country, as well as their own.

“It’s all of these people with very personal interconnected stories, but what they all share is this hope and this dream and this longing for something that isn’t their current situation,” he said. “And what’s more relevant than that? Even if we, as people, aren’t living in that, we’ve all longed for something, or lost something, or been nostalgic about something. I’m fairly confident that everyone’s experienced that.”

The reading coincides with the 50thanniversary of the play, and what would have been the playwright’s 80thbirthday year. He won the New York Drama Circle Award, the Obie Award and the Outer Critics Circle Award for “Hot L Baltimore,” a play filled with everyday humanity that is, ultimately, unexpectedly intimate and moving — the perfect study for a group of already acquainted actors.

“A lot of these people I’ve worked with before and they’ve worked with each other before. In a way, it fits this group of characters,” Clemente said. “They all clearly know each other very well — they’ve seen the comings and goings of the hotel — so a lot of the bonding has been done in their daily lives, because they happen to know each other. So that’s a great plus to this reading, when we’re not working with a lot of time.

“Certainly, we’d all love more time — in general, everybody wants more time, especially because the play is so rich and you can really dive into these characters and spend a lot of time on their relationships and what they think of each other,” he continued. “But, it’s also a good thing because people come in really ready to work. There’s a deadline and that little bit of pressure there really brings out the best in everyone.”

A one-night-only staged reading of “The Hot L Baltimore” by Lanford Wilson will be held on Saturday, November 3, at 7 p.m. at the Southampton Arts Center, located at 25 Jobs Lane in Southampton. This production contains mature content and strong language, and is not suitable for children.

Cast includes: Joe Brondo, Valerie diLorenzo, Carolann DiPirro, Rob DiSario, Rebecca Edana, Steve Hamilton, Jenna Mate, Matthew O’Connor, Minerva Perez, Michael Quattrone, Ben Schnickel, Emily Selyukova and Susan Stout.

Tickets are $10 and $7 for Friends of SAC. For more information, call (631) 283-0967 or visit southamptonartscenter.org.

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