|Cast of Burn This (Margaret Toomey)|
(at 12th Avenue Arts)
Through November 18, 2017
Lanford Wilson was a fairly prolific playwright in the 1970s and ‘80s and into the ‘90s who was known for a heightened realism with a touch of poetry in the dialogue. He was an openly gay man who included gay characters in his plays, which for that period was considered a challenging act.
Wilson also liked to write about characters on the fringes of society. He also dug deeply into the Talley family in a series of plays about the family and its small town characters.
Some plays weather the passage of time and become classics of their time while still being relevant in message to a current audience. Some plays, many of Wendy Wasserstein’s, for instance, were well received in their time, but when you revisit them, it’s hard to feel like they have current relevance any more. I don’t expect a lot of her plays to pass the test of time.
Such is the problem with Wilson’s play, Burn This, now playing at Theatre22. Theatre22 loves Wilson and maybe Wilson was a seminal influence early on. Unfortunately, the play does not help audiences care about the characters much. The characters don’t really learn that much about themselves, and the events of the script are a bit confusing and not very compelling.
The play is set in Manhattan in 1986 and it is just after one housemate of three has died in a tragic boating accident. Roommates Anna (Carolyn Marie Monroe) and Larry (Alex Garnett) have just come back from the funeral and relate the event to Anna’s boyfriend, Burton (Jason Sanford). The biggest take-away is that the family did not know their son was gay, or if they did, they ignored or dismissed it.
Robbie and Anna and Larry were all dancers. Anna has begun to try choreography as dancing has taken its toll and she’s ready to move on. Anna is distraught that Robbie’s family members took her for his girlfriend and also did not know and had never seen Robbie dance. Anna feels like she’s committed a fraud by going along with them.
A month later, Robbie’s older brother, Pale (Tim Gouran), unexpectedly appears to pick up Robbie’s things, but he is tortured about his feelings toward his little brother and somewhat incapable of dealing appropriately with his feelings. In the tumult of talking to Anna, he becomes aroused and finds a way to entice Anna into sleeping with him. Since he says he has a wife and Anna has Burton, they both consider it a small and unencumbering moment. Until later, they don’t.
The production is nicely technically supported. The apartment set (by Margaret Toomey) has great ideas in it that realistically allow for dancers to practice in it. The lighting (by Ahren Buhmann) is subtle and the music composed by Michael Owcharuk and played by Kate Olson is moody saxophone mournfulness.
Monroe provides a lot of delicate emotional resonance, and is compelling and the appropriate center of the piece. However, not all her emotions match the moments of the scripts, or they are free-floating in a way, untethered to what the script helps us understand.
Garnett gets to be the comic relief in a fairly dark script, but from the beginning of the piece, he is surprisingly lighthearted for someone whose very good friend and roommate has just been buried. There is a blitheness that seems overly jaunty for the role.
Gouran is an intense actor, and here he does his damndest to deliver a rather complex and unusual character. However, he is scary as hell in the role, which does have some sense of danger, but ultimately it’s too much danger and makes the transitions at the end unbelievable.
Sanford and Monroe don’t have much chemistry, which seems to work for part of the script, but is never believable when Anna says she has feelings for Burton. Burton as a character is thinly written and also has a not very believable backstory, which again makes the play less relevant.
The title of the play came about because, as the program tells us, Wilson wrote the words “burn this” across the top of every page of the draft and thought it would maybe never see the light of day. While it had great success in its day, maybe it’s appropriate to consign future productions to the ash heap.