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REVIEW: BURN THIS by Lanford Wilson

 

Mark Diaco as Pale in Burn This

After attending the funeral of her roommate Robbie, and his partner Dom, killed in a freak boating accident, Anna and her other roommate, Larry, must deal with the heartbreak of their sudden loss. Soon joining them is Anna’s long-time boyfriend, Burton, and later – in the middle of the night – Robbie’s brother, Pale. Together, they dance around their feelings, trying to deal with their grief – alternating between opening up to each other and shutting down.

Lanford Wilson’s play was first performed off-Broadway in 1987 and while the text gives the actors a lot to play with, this new production at 45 Downstairs made me wonder, “Why now?”

The question is a double-edged sword; some plays are just so good, that reviving them can be relevant any time. Some plays, even if they are dated, can feel like interesting time capsules – an insight into a time gone by, a world that no longer exists. “Why now” can be a question for creatives, to dig into why it’s a work they need to make. Or it could be a question from a funding body. Or an angle for publicity.

Burn This feels almost quaint in its naturalism and structure. It’s two acts. It’s the fallout from a dramatic off-stage moment. It’s three friends and a paradigm-upsetting outsider. There are secrets to be kept and uncovered. But apart from costume and design leaning slightly into an 80s aesthetic, this play and production don’t feel transportive enough to be insightful about decades past.

Being set in a warehouse apartment in New York makes 45 Downstairs the perfect theatre for Burn This to be staged. Using the entire length and width of the room is effective – having the actors traverse the entire space adds an extra layer of tension to whether the characters will connect or successfully avoid each other. Playing it in the round meant some of the lines were lost, depending on what side of the room you were on, but the immersion was effective nonetheless.

The character of Pale seems to be the reason to revisit this play, at least for the actors involved. It debuted with John Malkovich and, over the years, has been performed by Edward Norton, Peter Sarsgaard, Richard Roxburgh and Adam Driver. None of the other characters have anything like the presence of this coked-up, speed-talking, arrogant, pathetic figure, who is equally set off by parallel parking as he is by a death in the family.

Mark Diaco takes on the role here and it’s sometimes a struggle to keep up with him, but he throws himself into the part, both physically and emotionally. Pale is a difficult character to like by design, but he’s one of those explosive people that you love to watch tear around a room.

On the other end of the speed scale is Dushan Phillips’ performance as Larry, a flirtatious gay man, who is a calm and welcoming presence, and thankfully pierces the masculine bravado of Pale and Burton on several occasions.

The characters of Anna and Burton are less well-drawn by Wilson’s play anyway, but Jessica Clarke and Jacob Collins also stumbled in their performances – completely forgetting their lines at one point of the opening-night performance.

Maybe there’s something in the text that I missed with director Iain Sinclair’s insistence that the actors play everything like fast-talking New Yorkers, urged on by grief and – later – the post-highs of a New Year’s Eve party. Struggling with sudden loss is a universal experience, but you need to have something worth saying, if you are going to talk about it. If it’s there in Wilson’s play, this production only rarely uncovers it. Mostly, it all disappears in a blur.

Burn This is on at 45 Downstairs until February 7th.

Photos: Chris Beck

 

Dushan Phillips in Burn This

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