When the trio who direct Project See Theatre decided to start a troupe, they wanted to start with a Lanford Wilson work, Burn This.
They ended up going with Steven Dietz's Lonely Planet, about two friends in the early days of the AIDS epidemic. That was December 2010. This year, Project See will end its first full season with not just Burn This but also Wilson's The Hot l Baltimore, which opened this week for a two-week run.
To Project See's Ellie Clark, Sullivan Canaday White and Evan Bergman, it's a fitting tribute to a writer they admire who died a year ago this month at age 73.
"I think anyone in the theater world probably has a taste for Lanford Wilson," Clark says. "Burn This and The Hot l Baltimore do show that we like character-driven pieces, we like meaty roles for actors, we like less cerebral and more heart. It's the kind of people we are in real life and the kind of things we like to watch onstage, the kind of people we want to watch."
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Hot l is set in the early 1970s at a the decaying Hotel Baltimore, which has been condemned, forcing its residents to move. The title refers to the hotel sign, which has a burned-out E in the word hotel. The residents include a couple of prostitutes, a gay couple, several senior citizens and others with nowhere else to go. It opened in March 1973 in New York City (with Judd Hirsch and Conchata Ferrell in the cast) and ran for 1,666 performances, putting it among the 25 longest-running shows in New York.
It was adapted as an ABC sitcom starring James Cromwell and Charlotte Rae, among others, but it failed to find an audience and was canceled after 13 episodes aired. It is cited in a number of lists of great forgotten TV shows. It was considered racy for its time.
Burn This is the story of four people coming to grips with the death of a friend.
But Clark says part of the beauty of Wilson's work is that it focused on people whom most of society ignored.
"He likes to give them a voice and give them a heart," Clark says. "You read about Lanford Wilson, and he was inspired by humanity. So, these people who can barely get through their day still decide to fight and still decide to keep going, against all odds."
White says that in both Hot l and Burn This — which opens in May — audiences will see why "Lanford Wilson is sort of touted as that playwright who gave a voice to the drug addicts, to the prostitutes, to homosexual characters, and that kind of ties these worlds together. Plus they're great plays. I love them."
That's one luxury the Project See directors have found in running their own company: If they love something and can get the rights to it, they can present it.
And Hot l, with 14 characters, gives Project See something else it desires in its first season.
"We said, this will be our opportunity to reach out to actors in the community," Clark says. "It's wonderful, and we are very attached to the people in that room."