THEATER REVIEW: Lanford Wilson’s “Burn This” at Different Stages

Flames are supposed to play a prominent role in Lanford Wilson’s “Burn This.” Not the kind you get from candles or cigarette lighters, but those psychic, emotional, even sexual ones that fire extinguishers can’t touch.

Dancer and budding choreographer Anna (Melissa Coleman-Reed) has spent the last three years in a Manhattan loft apartment with two gay men: advertising exec Larry (J.D. Burke) and fellow dancer Robbie, who was set to co-star in a pas de deux Anna has just choreographed.

Between Larry, Robbie and her boyfriend of sorts Burton (Ian Dav’yd), a fairly successful screenwriter who visits from time to time and with whom she seems to have more of a friendship than romance, Anna’s life has been comfortable, safe and low-key, if not passionate.

Their lives have just been disrupted by Robbie’s sudden death in a boating accident. They’ve just returned from Robbie’s funeral, a trying affair for Anna, who had not realized his family not only didn’t know he was gay, but had never seen him dance. Now he’s gone and they must find a way to get on with life.

A savage pounding at the door brings change they may not welcome. It’s Robbie’s older brother Jimmy (Brian Burke), aka Pale (for his fondness for VSOP cognac), come to collect Robbie’s belongings. Pale’s violent approach to the door is matched by his take-no-prisoners verbal style, a sort of stream-of-consciousness monologue littered with profanity and apparent anger.

Anna’s immediate response is revulsion, and she wants him to leave as soon as possible. But he ends up spending the night, and several thereafter (usually in a drunk or coked-out condition) – which will probably surprise every woman in the audience. Anna’s life till now, we must believe, is the result of emotional passivity and settling. Pale is the catalyst who will free Anna to break out of the box she’s climbed into and actually commit.

Burton and Larry are shortchanged in this script, almost relegated to props: Dav’yd’s Burton a good guy but a bit of a poseur who will eventually admit that his relationship with Anna has been based on convenience; J.D. Burke’s Larry providing comic relief with his endless stream of clever quips.

The core of the play is between Pale and Anna, and it’s between them the sparks must fly. Unfortunately, there aren’t many here. Coleman-Reed’s Anna seems more exhausted than seduced by this oddball who seems such a stranger to simple courtesy.

If she’s distanced from her own emotions at the beginning, at the end she seems more resigned than excited.

Burke’s Pale seems more sad than either dangerous or sexy. He’s pushy on the outside, needy on the inside, but his danger is of the bull-in-a-china shop variety. He craves communication, laments his past – married at 18, he has two children, but has never felt a connection with his wife, from whom he has been separated some years.

This Pale and Anna seem driven more by desperation and inevitability than by a flame of sexual urgency that cannot be denied.

“Burn This” is not a great play, but it’s a good one for at least two superb actors, who must overcome the iffy premise if they are to make it sing. This version seems perhaps more likely (I’d be tired too, with a partner like Pale alternately offending with his profane motormouth and then dissolving in tears), but it would be better if we felt those sparks.

Aside from one technical aspect that needs fixing – two extremely bright lights upstage that shine right in the spectators’ eyes – Director James P. Darvas keeps the pace moving, a necessity in this overlong play.

The details

Different Stages’ production of “Burn This” plays through Aug. 31 at Swedenborg Hall, 1531 Tyler Ave. in Hillcrest.

Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; matinee Aug. 24 at 2 pm.

Tickets: (760) 473-5963 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.