M&D Productions production of Lanford Wilson's "Burn This" is a return of the creative team behind last year's NH Theatre Award-winning production of another Wilson play, "Talley's Folly." Best director winner Rich Russo once again takes up the direction duties and best actor winner Ken Martin returns in a supporting role.
"Burn This," which opened Thursday, April 12, at Your Theatre in North Conway, N.H. and is running Thursday through Saturday for the next three weeks, is a very different, but at the same time similar beast, to the two-person romantic dramedy, "Talley's Folly."
In the opening scene of "Burn This," a trio of friends are mourning the recent death of Robbie, a young, hard working, talented, gay dancer. Anna (Christine Thompson), his roommate and dance partner, and Larry (Ken Martin), his other roommate and a successful ad man, fill in Burton (Ryan Orlando), a screenwriter and Anna's long-time lover, about the awkwardness of the funeral. Anna and Larry lament that his family didn't truly know him.
There's is a simmering anger in Anna and Larry that never entirely erupts. Anna simply states that she is angry, but there's no sense of the emotion behind it. This could be viewed as a limitation of the performance or simply as the character attempting to keep her emotions in control.
In scene two of act one, Pale (Eric Jordan), Robbie's volatile older brother, literally bursts into the scene seething with anger and frustration. Pale's emotions are definitely not in check and he goes on an abrasive, obscenity-filled rant.
This is the best written and performed scene in the play. Just as Pale's obnoxious ramblings begin to wear thin, the writing starts to humanize him and you begin to see his genuine pain over the loss of his brother and the realization that he didn't know much about him.
Jordan is extraordinary in the scene and subtly portrays the complex emotional shifts. There's always a sense that he's struggling with an internal monologue. This marks a huge growth as an actor for Jordan, who has always been a reliable, often scene-stealing comic actor, but here, under the sure direction of Russo, he ably flexes his dramatic muscles.
As the show progresses, uncertain romantic feelings begin to develop between Anna and Pale that neither knows how to deal with and which strains Anna's relationship with Burton. There's an interesting, hesitant romantic chemistry between Jordan and Thompson that builds to a tender, ambiguous final scene.
Wilson's writing takes potentially stereotypical characters and makes them recognizably human. Larry is basically the cliche gay best friend, who adds color commentary and provides advice, but doesn't have a life outside that role. The script addresses this, though, when Burton calls Anna and Larry out on living together instead of actually seeking out true romantic connection.
Larry is a comic relief character to be sure, but Martin doesn't play Larry for cheap laughs. The characters always feels like a person, not just a type. Even when Martin is just on stage listening to the actors, you can sense that he's truly listening and processing what is being said instead of just waiting to say his line.
Orlando, on the other hand, seems slightly emotionally disconnected from his scenes. He says his lines, but without much feeling. He does have a great, and well-delivered, monologue about the worthlessness of film as an art form. Martin has a similarly cynical diatribe about the advertising world and Jordan spouts out numerous tirades on things he hates. This sardonic edge to Wilson's writing helps to break the emotional tension that builds throughout scenes.
Thompson feels, at times, emotionally removed, but, again, it is unclear if this is an acting choice or a flaw in the performance. In the second act, Anna does wall herself off emotionally from the world. It is a defense mechanism just as Pale's anger is his. Even so, Thompson may be burying the emotions too deeply.
As always, Deborah Jasien, who won best set design for "Talley's Folly, has created a fantastic set for the actors to play on. This time it is an authentic-looking loft apartment.
"Burn This" is a show that addresses griefing, but while much of it is marked by sadness, there's also a sense of hope that sometimes out of pain, there can be love.
For more information or tickets, call the box office at 662-7591.