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By Daniel Skora
Posted: Aug. 15, 2012 at 8:20 p.m.
Lanford Wilson's play "Burn This" is currently being presented by the Performance Network Theatre of Ann Arbor. Had Wilson wanted to forgo the catchy title and remain truer to the intent of his play, he could very easily have entitled it "Four Characters in Search of a Self."
As the play opens, Anna (Quetta Carpenter), a dancer and choreographer, grieves over the loss of her dancing partner and loft mate Robbie, who, along with his male lover, recently died in a boating accident. Though Robbie does not appear in the play, his presence is felt throughout the show by the other characters.
Comfort comes quickly to Anna in the form of her boyfriend Burton (Jon Bennett), whose romantic and sexual contributions to their relationship can best be described as tepid. Burton is a writer of screenplays, having made a name for himself turning out scripts dealing with science fiction and fantasy.
Adding to the mix is Larry (Kevin Young), an advertising art director who shared living quarters with Anna and the now deceased Robbie. Like Robbie, Larry is gay, and his proficiency as a quipster accounts for much of the humor in this otherwise dramatic presentation.
The tranquility of the loft is soon broken by the sudden and unexpected appearance of Robbie's brother Pale (Darrell Glasgow), who has come by to claim his brother's belongings. He is volatile, profane and opinionated in an unsophisticated kind of way. He packs a gun, spews words and thoughts like they were bullets, and otherwise seems to be jacked up higher than a kite. Because he bears a strong resemblance to her former dance partner, whom she misses greatly, and because she finds him dominating and dangerous, a striking contrast to the men she has known of late, Anna immediately takes him into her bed.
Each of the four characters in Wilsonís play has reason to regret the situation in which they find themselves. Burton wants to write something more meaningful than the fanciful scripts that have made him rich. Larry resents the insignificance of being a pitchman for products he cares little about, and covers his insecurities about his gayness with an endless succession of wisecracks and jokes. Darrell is full of bluster, more than a bit of an impostor. He masks his real job as a restaurant manager, hinting instead at being engaged in some deeper, darker purpose while conveniently forgetting to disclose that he has a wife and kids who have run out on him. Anna is insecure at best, lost without her dance partner, unsure about her relationship with Burton, and creatively empty.
All things point to "Burn This" being Anna's play. She is present in every important scene and the three male characters owe their presence to her. But Wilson's script does nothing to give her the kind of grit and moxie that would enable her to eclipse those flimsy excuses of manhood which surround her. For all of the talk about the beauty of her art and her dedication to her craft, Anna is an empty shell with not a clue as to where to find real fulfillment. She easily gives up her feminine intimacies to the phony Darrell, then rejects him, then allows the drunken scoundrel to have his way again after a New Year's Eve fiasco where Darrell and Burton come to blows, only to throw him out once again.
Playwright Wilson, who passed away just over a year ago with a lengthy list of plays to his name, often dealt with homosexual themes; "Burn This" is no exception. Wilson uses his text to offer up tidbits on the homosexual lifestyle, some of which are amusing, like the overly-sentimental infatuation with new champagne flutes, others which have hard-core sensibilities, like Burton's description of a homosexual encounter long held secret.
Content aside, PNT's production is brisk, intriguing and entertaining. Darrell Glasgow is absolutely explosive as the dangerous Pale. Ray Schultz directs with special attention to the action sequences. Monika Essen's set design of a 1980s-style Manhattan loft is inviting enough that you can imagine staying behind after everyone has left the theatre and cozying up to the comfy sofa and sipping a bit of what's been left in the champagne bottle.
Whether or not this show is your cup of tea (It's Red Rose Orange Pekoe being served onstage) may depend largely on the viewer's own lifestyle. Though the sexual situations by and large speak of a joyless eroticism, it advocates, nonetheless, a sensuality unencumbered by love or tenderness or commitment. And for those who like their theater to come neatly packaged with some kind of resolve or rejuvenation, the show ends with Anna and Darrell dubiously embracing both each other and the evocative words "I don't want this."
SHOW DETAILS: "Burn This" runs through Sept. 2. For tickets and information, call the box office at 734-663-0681 or go online at www.performancenetwork.org. The Performance Network Theatre is located at 120 E. Huron Drive in downtown Ann Arbor.
Reprinted with permission of the New Monitor, Aug. 16, 2012
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