Lanford Wilson, playwright of 'The Hot L Baltimore,' 'Fifth of July,' dies at 73

On Friday night, theaters Off-Broadway will be dimming their marquee lights for a minute at curtain time in a sign of respect to the memory of Lanford Wilson, the prolific playwright who died March 24 at the age of 73 of pneumonia in New Jersey. Nearly 30 of his works were performed Off-Broadway during his career.

Among the Missouri-born Mr. Wilson's plays were "Talley's Folly," which earned him the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1980 and was part of a trilogy that also included the much-admired "Fifth of July."

The author's ability to shine a revealing light on the marginalized or down-and-out proved especially effective. And as a gay man who grew up at a time when the closet was the safest place, Mr. Wilson was especially telling in his exploration of gay characters, who defied the stereotypes more likely to be encountered onstage.

Mr. Wilson's knack for defying convention spiced a 1973 play that has extra resonance for folks here in Central Maryland. It's titled .....

"The Hot L Baltimore" and set in a seedy, about-to-be-demolished hostelry -- the "e" in the hotel sign had long since burned out. Filled with misfits, the work may not have been great for Baltimore's image, but it certainly captured the city's deliciously quirky side. (The playwright didn't have any deep connection to Baltimore that I'm aware of, but he sure seems to have had a keen sense of things Baltimore-like -- not that we're all misfits, mind you, just misfit-nurturing.)

Norman Lear decided to adapt the play for a TV sitcom that debuted on ABC in 1975. Prostitutes and gays were not typical TV comedy characters in those days, so the show was all the more daring. Short-lived, too. It ran for only half a season.

As New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley wrote about the play in an appreciation of Mr. Wilson:

What was, and remains, wonderful about 'The Hot L Baltimore' [is] its creator’s immense love for every one of his wounded characters. And not just love but admiration for the human urge to persist, to go wild, to keep dancing even when the music has stopped. The empathy and respect ... that infuses 'Hot L' is highly seductive ... No wonder his work was, for so many years, catnip to actors.


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