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VALLEY WEEKEND | THEATER REVIEW

Work Lacks Fiery Spirit the Playwright Envisioned

Well-chosen cast of 'Burn This' almost saves the ill-conceived play, but the central character's attraction to another is unbelievable.

September 26, 1996|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When he was premiering one of his plays at the Mark Taper Forum, Lanford Wilson told this reviewer that the inspiration for the work had come from something he had seen at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, which impressed him as being "kick-ass." Wilson wanted to write something equally kick-ass, and came up with "Burn This," which starred Steppenwolf founders Joan Allen and John Malkovich.

"Burn This," sorry to say, didn't kick ass then, and 11 years later, in a handsome, intelligently cast revival at the Whitefire Theatre, it still doesn't. It seems odd, in fact, that Wilson would even consider this a piece of Steppenwolf-type theater--or at least the kind of aggressive, physical theater Steppenwolf used to do. "Burn This" is a mostly gentle, faintly sad pas de quatre that becomes a love story almost in spite of itself.

It's greatest achievement--and one elegantly retained in director Joel Asher's staging--is that the alternating moods of sadness and light, reverie and regret, casual hipness and fragility, perfectly reflect its central character, choreographer-to-be Anna (Stacey Stone). Grieving over the accidental death of her dancer-friend Robby, Anna finds her grief transferred to the more deeply grieving older brother of Robby, Pale (Michael Hegedus).

The play's greatest failure, which this production can't overcome, is convincing us that Anna somehow connects with Pale through their shared love of Robby and with the passionate fire alluded to in the title. It isn't just that she and the rough, crude, workaholic restaurateur have zero in common--while she has everything in common with her nice writer-lover Burton (William Bumiller). Pale is Big Bad Wolf to Anna's Little Red Riding Hood, Scorsese wise guy to her Merchant-Ivory lady, foul-mouthed hustler to her downtown artfulness.

Wilson tries to make yin and yang equate, but he can't here. Once Malkovich got past his histrionics in the original production, he and Allen generated a real chemistry in spite of the play. Stone and Hegedus do it here, too, with Hegedus conveying a more threatening and desperate working-class Jersey guy. When Anna says she's afraid of him, it silences Pale and us, because it rings absolutely true.

*

A good cast can almost save this play, and Asher's actors have plugged into these characters' back stories--from Burton's little-rich-boy upbringing to Anna's sheltered past/bewildered present. But while Bumiller is superb as a screenwriter at odds with his work and a man attracted to a love he can't have, we feel flummoxed at Anna's rejection of him. This is the part of Anna that Stone can't sell to us (nor can any actress), and it's why at the core of this play is an impossibility.

Eric Roth has a kicky time, sometimes too much of one, as Anna's gay roommate, Larry. Archly written as the comic relief role, Larry's own sadness comes to the surface here with Roth, even suggesting a latent attraction to Burton.

Like the casting (except for Hegedus), the whole production seems influenced by Marshall Mason's Taper staging, and the Whitefire has the proper room for a beautifully detailed two-story downtown loft set by Nicholas Dorr and Joe Balogh. Jerry Browning's lights have a keen sense of night, day and (especially) midnight. Keen sense prevails here, in fact, except for a play that wants to be something it can't be.

DETAILS

* WHAT: "Burn This."

* WHERE: Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks.

* WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 20.

* HOW MUCH: $15.

* CALL: (818) 953-9993 or (213) 466-1767.

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