Story: Anna recently has returned from the funeral of one of her roommates, Robbie. He was a gifted dancer, and choreographer Anna is still angry that no one from his New Jersey family had ever seen him perform in New York City. Robbie was homosexual but never came ‘out’ to his family, or so she tells her other gay roommate, an advertising executive named Larry, as well as Burton, a wealthy writer who is also her lover.
Shortly after her return from the funeral Anna is visited unexpectedly by Robbie’s brother, Pale, ostensibly to collect his brother’s belongings. He manages a restaurant which he matter-of-factly discusses as being shaken down regularly by gangsters. Pale is loud, brash, bigoted and crude, the antithesis of his brother, but his chemistry with Anna is palpable. As Anna works on a commission to honor Robbie and his work, she finds herself pulling away from Burton and drawn to Pale’s explosive and powerful personality.
Highlights: The late Missouri playwright Lanford Wilson, who died in 2011, achieved notable success with works such as Talley’s Folly, Fifth of July and The Hot l Baltimore. Wilson’s knack for naturalistic dialogue is evident in his best-known plays and is exemplified in this crisp, compelling drama that was first performed in 1987.
A quarter-century later, Burn This remains taut, engaging theater, particularly in a production that sizzles such as the one mounted by director Rachel Tibbetts for the Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble. Tibbetts extracts powerful performances by her quartet of players in this absorbing and finely tuned presentation that delivers Wilson’s dialogue as efficiently as Pale barks out orders to his staff.
Other Info: Tibbetts supports the mood of this somber but affecting love story with the music of a group called I Love You, I Know, which is comprised of Chad Koehler, Jamie Kurth, Adam Maness and Jason Walz. The soft, folk-style rock offers a reassuring background, whether original music or covers of Springsteen tunes.
The spare set designed by Thom Schwetye takes advantage of the spacious Black Cat Theatre stage to allow plenty of room for the players to interact between an apartment loft door at one end and a bar at the other with a worn sofa as anchor, all moodily illuminated by Michael Bergfeld’s lighting. It’s especially relevant for some fight choreography by Bob Mitchell that expertly depicts the brawl that erupts from the simmering animosity between Burton and Pale.
Tracey Newcomb-Margrave’s costumes shrewdly befit the characters, from Pale’s macho attire to Burton’s preppie togs, Larry’s amusing array of T-shirts and the perpetually barefoot Anna’s skimpy dancer’s dress.
Ellie Schwetye and Adam Flores are thoroughly convincing as the imperious Anna and headstrong Pale, respectively. Their chemistry is evident from their first moment on stage together, and is the beating heart that moves this sober drama through its two acts and considerable turmoil. Flores is especially affecting, carefully revealing Pale’s vulnerability with nary a word after Anna has publicly berated him, simply slowly gathering his clothes and softly exiting the room in stark contrast to his blustery nature.
Jared Sanz-Agero is marvelous in depicting the caustic, bitchy Larry, a gay man who hates his job and maybe his life, too, but who also provides the impetus to spur Anna to happiness. As Burton, Reginald Pierre is cool and clinical, particularly in a sobering scene where the self-absorbed writer describes a one-time encounter with a stranger in a city alley years before. There’s a noticeable void in Burton’s relationship with Anna, however, which makes Pale’s access to her all the more inevitable.
Burn This remains a strong and forceful drama 25 years after its debut as evidenced in SATE’s nifty and engaging rendition.
Play: Burn This
Group: Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble
Venue: Black Cat Theatre, 2810 Sutton Blvd.
Dates: May 16, 17, 18, 19, 23, 24, 25, 26
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photo courtesy of Jason Walz