Alienation can make great theater.
Winding Road Theatre Ensemble’s production of “Burn This” struggles to bring Lanford Wilson’s story of distances between people, emotions and motivations to life.
What it creates is more of a head scratcher than anything else.
It’s hard to see that these characters care for each other. Or themselves, for that matter. And that makes it hard for audiences to care.
“Burn This” begins with a death, or rather the aftermath of a death. A dancer, Robbie, and his lover have been killed in a boating accident. After the funeral, Anna and Larry, Robbie’s roommates in a pristine New York City loft, gather and try to make sense of the loss. Anna, a dancer and choreographer, is especially devastated: Robbie was her muse. Creating great work seems far out of her reach now.
Anna’s boyfriend, Burton, is a trust fund baby, a writer, and so self-obsessed that you want to jump out of your seat and throttle him. While he seems to be the most important person to him, he does treat Anna with a sort of tenderness.burton
Bursting onto the scene — literally — is Pale, Robbie’s homophobic, angry, married, coke-and-booze-fueled brother. He descends in the middle of one night demanding Robbie’s things. Anger defines him. As does alienation. Think Stanley Kowalski from “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Naturally, he and Anna fall for each other. She is inspired to do her best work. He never seems to find peace, but there is an attempt to reach out. Poor Burton is brushed off. Larry is a bemused observer of it all.
There are a few problems with this 1987 play. It isn’t Wilson’s strongest and falls back on a few cliche situations (bad boy inspires good girl to do her best work. Really?).
But this Glen Coffman-directed production doesn’t seem able to work around those. Emilee Foster is beautiful and moves like a dancer, but her Anna never reaches too deeply. Patrick Baum is stuck with the role of Burton, and he was unable to make the milquetoast character compelling. Steve Wood carried the role of Larry, a gay advertising man who clearly cares for Anna and their now-gone roommate, with a wisp of humor.
It is Christopher Johnson who has the dream role of the ranting, raging Pale, and Johnson does not disappoint. He seems so hopped up and on the edge that cowering is the first instinct one feels. Except for Anna, who somehow is seduced by his anger, his verbal abuse, his self-obsession, his obliviousness to those around him. Maybe because, when he finally slows down, he snuggles close and cries in her hair. Oh how I hope woman are more evolved than that.
Coffman’s direction seems robotic. The nuances in this story are missing, and the alienation and the struggle to reach out never feel real.
While Johnson is spot-on in this production, "Burn This" misses the mark.