Thursday, March 23, 2006

Review of Luna Theater's production of Lanford Wilson's "Burn This" 2-18-06

I’ve always loved seeing plays at the Luna Theater. As a young company, they’ve tackled difficult works in their first 3 years, ranging from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, to Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe?, and Mamet’s torturous Oleanna. Every time I see one of their productions, I leave the small studio thinking, this is how good theatre should look. Their recent production is no exception. The Luna Theater has brought Philadelphia an impressive revival of Lanford Wilson’s Burn This, a dark comedy of an intense love affair between an artist on the brink of triumph, and a drug-addled burnout who almost destroys her. Luna’s deft handling of this type of story makes this a play worth seeing, giving in two hours, a rollercoaster of nerve-wracking insanity played out across the stage.

A bit of the story: the play opens on Anna, a choreographer/dancer, in her NYC loft moments after hearing of the tragic death of her roommate and dance partner. Her roommate Larry, and boyfriend Burton attempt to console her, to no avail. She attends Robb’s funeral, and returns to NY, to try and piece her life back together and prepare a piece for a major dance collaborative. Enter Pale, Robb’s fiery, disturbed older brother, similar in appearance, who barges in one night and seduces Anna through their shared grief. Or so we’re meant to believe, as this initial seduction brings about the end of Anna’s relationship, Pale’s marriage, and nearly consumes them both.

The best performances of the night came from the spectacular Pale and Anna, played by Chris Fluck and Aaryn Kopp respectively. As Pale, Fluck dominates the entire production—as expected, since his character is what ignites and motivates the tension of the play. Fluck played Pale as both irritating and gritty, he moved across the stage like a prizefighter, and his energy consumed all of your attention. At times I couldn’t wait for him to get what (should have been) coming to him, at others, I so deeply bought into his burnt out despair that I understood his perspective. I think the script alone would’ve made me simply despise Pale—a Soprano’s reject of a character if ever one existed. But in this production, Fluck brought him to life, giving Pale a sincere vulnerability that made him almost recognizably human. Without his presence on the stage, the production seemed off-key, without purpose or life.

For the most part, Kopp adequately handled the role of the emotionally fragile dancer. Although I partly blame the play for this, watching her, I never got any sense or understanding of her motivations—and interacting with Pale, she seemed unconvincing. Her main fault was too much intensity—whenever she spoke, she did so with the same pitch and nearly the same volume. While this definitely increased the tension when she finally rebuffed Pale in Act Three, it gave the general impression that she was acting out the lines well without a solid understanding of her character.

The performances by the other two actors suffer both by comparison and their own ineffectiveness. Patrick Doran as Anna’s boyfriend Burton appears flat, and never giving the audience a reason to care about his character, consequently never finds a place in the structure of the play. Eric Courtwright, plays Anna’s roommate Larry as the stereotyped gay character—overly dramatic and flamboyant, and utterly annoying at best. While no doubt these types exist, seeing an actor perform this way makes you question his competency in acting, and the director’s decision to allow this portrayal in his production.

Some of the problems with the two minor characters I blame on the text. Both Larry and Burton, as written, merely serve as expedients or problems in the developing relationship between Pale and Anna. Burton has little reason to exist in this play, as Burn This is not a love triangle plot, nor does Burton’s character provide anything but an aggravating thorn in the mind of every audience member who cannot fathom the behavior of Anna’s character. But most of the fault in these two resides in the actors performances. As I already pointed out, Courtwright’s gay roommate sounds one note throughout the entire play, whether he’s relating information, telling a story, or attempting to seduce the other male characters. And though the entire character of Burton is written as background only, Doran only ever plays him in that manner. There is a complete absence of emotion on his part throughout, except rage at the end—which, while having volume, gives no subtlety or hints of a fuller characterization.

However, if I could change anything, I would change the text—at times, it’s nearly unreadable, even for these talented actors. Certain phrases, intended to portray mania or desperation, are overly long, and run together, which hampers understanding (and slowing them down would ruin their effect). At other times, the characters (especially Larry) tell anecdotes of no import, and the play itself completely lacks both a plot and a recognizable theme. An attempt is made, when Larry, trying to explain Anna’s otherwise confusing behavior remarks, “so long as one’s working, personal relationships don’t matter.” But this theme never manifests itself throughout the play, and there is no single idea which comprehensively unites the action.

That said, there is action, and plenty of tension to hold your attention. The play moved well under Gregory Scott Campbell’s direction, and there were no points where a lapse in the action betrayed the tension playing out on stage. In this, Campbell’s apt direction helped the play—and while anyone (especially myself) may have disagreed with the intentions motivating the character’s behaviors, no one could mistake their urgency, the force given them by the intensity this production gave to Wilson’s script. In the best sense of the phrase, I could not wait for this play to end. For while I didn’t care for or identify with any of the characters, and was baffled by their choices, the portrayal by Pale and Anna gripped my interest so tightly that I simmered impatiently in my seat waiting to see what would happen next. I can’t think of higher praise for a production overall—I hated these characters as written, but the intense direction and two lead actors still captured my interest . And this is what made for another potent and exciting evening of theater, done once again in solid fashion by the Luna Theater Company.

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