On a cold fall night, a little fiery passion may just be the ticket to ward off the chill in the air. Lanford Wilson’s Burn This, directed by Susan Feinchell, at the Huntington Theatre in Residence at Boston University promises such a steamy treat.
The story begins with a portrait of Anna, played by Anne Torsiglieri, a dancer whose partner and roommate Robbie was recently killed along with his lover in a freak motorboat accident. Anna’s other roommate Larry (Nat DeWolf) and her sci-fi screenwriter boyfriend Burton (Brian Hutchison) attempt to comfort her after surviving the funeral in New Jersey with his family who considered her “the girlfriend.” This is the set-up, the excuse to initiate dramatic tension.
A question arises: what are they to do with Robbie’s stuff? The family promised to send someone, but no one comes. On the eve of donation to charity, a man barges into Anna’s lower East Side loft apartment in the middle of the night, ranting and raving like a madman. It turns out to be Jimmy, Robbie’s doppelganger older brother (Michael T. Weiss), otherwise known as Pale, a nickname earned by his taste for VSOP (Very Special Old Pale) Cognac, a sophisticated drink for one so beastly.
Pale is hot, very hot. He has a high body temperature and a fiery temper. Weiss plays the part like a man possessed, burning the stage up with his scorching performance. This counters Torsiglieri’s cool Anna, whose performance borders on brain freeze. Together, the pair barely creates a spark, and their inevitable affair comes off as a tempest in a teapot.
The character of Anna is the main sticking point. She is incapable of leading her own life. The late Robbie told her to be a choreographer, so she became a choreographer. She thinks she should marry the equally stale Burton, but neither one seems to be in a hurry or very much in love — they never seem to spend much time together. She wants to be rid of Pale, but he constantly returns. When the affair is conceded, she admits to the very end that this is not what she wants. Burton and Larry are her accessories, necessary in her life until Pale takes over and consumes her.
The script is full of allusions and entendres, intended to be poignant, but instead are potholes that trip up the story, as does the forced sentimentality. The play stands upon Pale’s shoulders. Thank goodness for Weiss’ fascinating performance. He is a chameleon. By night, Pale is a fire-breathing dragon and by day, a no-nonsense restaurant manager. When he crumbles into tearful grief, the spell is broken and we are reminded that the words he is speaking are not his own, but the author’s.
Maybe it’s just that the play, albeit fairly recent, it dated. Written in 1987, it is odd that AIDS isn’t an issue, overtly or subtextually. Sexual experiences are anecdotal. Cocaine, marijuana and alcohol are imbibed freely. And the aura of the post-9/11 inferno is nonexistent, despite Pale’s desire to burn the city down.
Ultimately, Burn This is an intriguing, tricky, clever, well-sculpted play that turned out to be a script that even the best actors can’t fix.
Burn This runs through December 12 at Huntington Theatre in Residence at Boston University. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 PM, Friday and Saturday at 8 PM. Sunday at 7:00 PM. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday Matinees at 2 PM. Ticket prices run from $40 to $69. For tickets and information, visit www.huntingtontheatre.org
Burn This by Lanford Wilson. Directed by Susan Fenichell. Set design by James Noone. Costume design by Candice Donnelly. Lighting design by Mary Louise Geiger. Sound design by Drew Levy. Cast: Michael T. Weiss, Anne Torsiglieri, Brian Hutchison and Nat DeWolf.