Frank Rich, reviewing the original production of Burn This, hit the nail on the head when he mused that Lanford Wilson’s play, for all people have tried to make of it, is essentially a Romantic Comedy. I have now seen four productions of Burn This in my life and I am convinced it is not a great play, but rather an amusing night at the theatre. It just happens to have the good fortune of containing one of the best characters ever written for the stage.
It is interesting to see the play done in two different styles, and with two different sets of actors, so close together. Devanaugh’s production at the Piano Factory last spring sizzled due to the yoeman’s performance of Josh Rollins as Pale. The production also had the advantage of the intelligence and observation of the of the supporting cast, and a sensitive director. However, the total of that whole evening was less than the sum of its parts and it missed the mark because it is incredibly hard to see the play as the overall moody and turgid piece that Devanaugh presented.
The Huntington Production, playing at the BU Theatre right now is staged as a romantic comedy, with a much brighter loft space, and a simply fabulous Larry played by Nat DeWolf. I once heard Peter Kelley say, "You have to understand the difference between a set for La Boheme and set for Barefoot in the Park."
I was excited to see how this production would play out, but once again I ran into the problem of that brick wall of a first scene. Burn This, for those who are not familiar, starts with an overlong first scene which contains the worst kind of exposition, meaning the kind that reveals itself without any conflict. I have never had the experience of seeing this scene work in any sort of meaningful way, and anyone who knows the play secretly admits to a desire to skip right to the banging on the door which starts the second scene and heralds the arrival of Pale.
Once Pale, the hurricane force of a working class alpha male arrives everybody breathes a little easier, and Michael T. Weiss, of The Pretender fame, looks and struts the part. However, after seeing Josh Rollins tear it up at Devanaugh last year, I was a little disappointed in Weiss’s performance. Josh had a force and diction that perfectly caught the spirit of somebody whose mind works ten times too fast even when he is not on cocaine. He was fast, furious, dangerous and chose just the right moments in the speech patterns to punch up the comedy. Alas, Josh ‘s only drawback was not his fault. His only shortcoming was his age and his youthfulness.
But where Weiss is more physically suited, and a little more mischievous, he doesn’t get the manic down enough. And so the "Paleisms" that had the audience roaring with laughter at Devanaugh, only illicit mere giggles from the Huntington crowd .("I have spent half of my adult life looking for a parking space.") Weiss spits off the lines as if they are ingrained in Pale’s regular patter of conversation. Rollins, also a talented playwright and therefore understanding of the merge between character and dialogue , would toss them off as if Pale’s machinegun mind was making them up on the spot. Never quite sure what was to come out of his mouth, Rollins' Pale would create these gems, and the effect would be a transformation from a search for words to a truly witty, satirical comment, ("One half of my brain knows that and the other half…..drinks." )
It is not just the laughs that suffer in the Huntington Production though. This shortcoming extends further into Weiss's performance, making Pale's blindsides, ("So, are you f***ing him too.") seem forced.
Weiss definitely has the charm all over Josh’s more edgy performance though, and I think that may be an effect of the director’s move towards a lighter treatment of the work. It definiteley helps us to understand the romance end of things. Devanaugh went the heavy wounded birds route, which is a perfectly legitimate way to interpret it, although neither way can save the play.
Were it possible to merge Josh’s and Weiss’s performances, I believe we would have something truly blazing. But there I go again, talking all about Pale. And I don’t feel that bad because I know the play places the other characters/actors in difficult positions. I think the lead female role is one of the biggest traps for an actress ever laid by a serious dramatist since Willy Loman’s wife eulogized at the graveside. I mean Blanche Dubois at least had a few tricks up her sleeve for a wounded bird.
Without a Hurricane Pale, Nat DeWolfe’s Larry, walks away with the show in his back pocket. He is very funny, just as he was in Betty’s Summer Vacation.
There are more insidious problems inherent in the insistence of forcing Burn This into canonical repertory, but that is a story for another post.