Performance Network's 'Burn This' could use even more heat
Photo by Sean Carter | courtesy of Performance Network
“I like the ocean,” he says. “That hurricane. I like those gigantic, citywide fires. Avalanches!”
The answer is telling, in that Wilson intends Pale to be the embodiment of such larger-than-life natural forces that threaten to swallow a person whole.
In this case, the person in danger of being consumed is Anna (Quetta Carpenter), a dancer-turned-choreographer who’s grieving the sudden, shocking loss of her friend, collaborator and roommate, Robbie. Though she has a support system in the form of a gay, wise-cracking ad man third roommate Larry (Kevin Young) and a longtime, screenwriting lover Burton (Jon Bennett), Anna flounders until Robbie’s estranged older brother Pale suddenly blows into her Manhattan loft one morning.
And what a loft it is. Monika Essen does her usual phenomenal work as the production’s set/props designer, meticulously capturing the hard-edged but charmingly austere spirit of a converted industrial space. With white exposed brick on the walls; a wood floor (the apartment doubles as Anna’s studio); tall, radius doors and windows (not to mention the bi-fold door that leads to Anna’s room); and multiple locks on the door, Essen’s set is a marvel. And by keeping the objects that occupy this expansive space at a minimum, the sense that the apartment’s residents are haunted by what’s missing is palpable.
The play itself is not Wilson’s best, but there’s nonetheless a lot for actors and audience alike to chew on. For instance, the characters—Pale included—seem to talk in circles much of the time, demonstrating the inherent difficulty of articulating what you truly want and most fear to another person, let alone to yourself. And because Robbie’s death (and Pale’s subsequent arrival) forces each member of this quartet to face up to the life they’re actively building for themselves, the stakes are heightened.
But for a story that depends on sexual heat as a catalyst, there’s something restrained about director Ray Schultz’s two-hours-plus production. Glasgow, as Pale, enters the play with a bang, spewing paragraphs of parking-spot-induced rage at Anna, who’s a stranger to him. Yet later, when Pale and Anna fall together, the attraction feels as though it’s built on a moment of tenderness and shared vulnerability more than some fierce, irresistible, gut-level attraction.
Consequently, the anxiety and denial that follow don’t feel consistent to the whole; and while the production provides plenty of food for thought, it never quite packs the emotional punch it clearly intends to.
Even so, the polished cast lands the script’s subtle moments of humor (particularly Young) and works exceedingly well as an ensemble. At the start of the second act, for instance, on New Year’s Eve, Anna, Larry and Burton hang out together in the apartment, and the scene conveys a palpable, familial sense of warmth and fun among them (which is precisely what Anna would sacrifice by pursuing a relationship with Pale). When Pale suddenly crashes the scene, the threat he poses to this triumvirate, paired with the allure of his unfiltered emotion, makes you feel the full weight of Anna’s potential loss.
Mary Cole’s lighting design affectingly underscored the play’s moments of tension and drama without being self-conscious. Carla Milarch and Phil Power’s 80s-pop-infused sound design serves to the remind the audience of the story’s era, as well as comment on the mood and action. And Suzanne Young’s costume design offers simple, unfussy statements of personality.
In the end, my feelings about “Burn This” resembled Anna’s feelings for Burton: a good deal of respect and affection, but generally lacking a greater sense of urgency.
"Burn This" continues through Sept. 2. For information, see the Performance Network website.