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The Dream of the Burning Boy

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Jessica Rothenberg, Jake O'Connor, Reed Birney, and Alexandra Socha.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

If you've ever suffered from true grief, you know in that state words can easily become meaningless. Whether they're yours or someone else's, and whatever their specific content, they don't warm with their sentiment, but bead and slide away like raindrops on a newly waxed car. Because of words' ineffectuality under those circumstances, grief is fiendishly difficult to depict in the theatre, a medium where speech is the alpha and the omega of expression. Yet in his new play, The Dream of the Burning Boy, which just opened at the Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, David West Read doesn't just summon one vision of this elusive emotion: he unlocks six. All different and yet all the same, they drive this lean, Roundabout Underground–produced work that plumbs bottomless sadness as few plays in recent memory have.

Each of those six perspectives belongs to someone who's been affected in a different way by the sudden death, by brain aneurysm, of a popular high-schooler named Dane (Josh Caras). The school counselor, Steve (Matt Dellapina), is barely out of college, and firmly of the belief that opening up early and often will spur recovery. Dane's girlfriend, Chelsea (Jessica Rothenberg), is stunned and flustered, unable to rouse herself to meaningful action. Best friend Kyle (Jake O'Connor) is obsessed with trying to fill all the voids Dane left behind. Rachel (Alexandra Socha), Dane's older sister, is increasingly resentful of the false shows of sympathy she detects from everyone around her. Dane's mom, Andrea (Kristie Dale Sanders), is predictably a wreck. English teacher Larry (Reed Birney) just wants to do his job and shut up about everything else.

That none of these viewpoints is compatible with the others is evident from the outset. Larry resists Steve's attempts to hang up posters encouraging love and communication ("Everything will be all right" and "Lean on me," printed in terrifyingly bold letters, are typical slogans), for example. (The posters' startling contrast against Lee Savage's homey-institutional classroom set is its own delightful.) And every time Rachel and Chelsea get within three feet of each other, they're practically at each other's throats—in part because Rachel surmises, not without cause, that Kyle is trying to console Chelsea in a way Dane almost certainly would not approve of. Perhaps most notably, Steve is intent on getting Larry and Andrea to talk, even though they're the last person the other wants to see—for reasons related to Dane that neither dares utter aloud.

Read has not engaged in complicated plotting; in fact, he's barely laid down a plot at all. But he and director Evan Cabnet have filled out the work with numerous minute details that recall Annie Baker's sterling Circle Mirror Transformation or Bathsheba Doran's just-opened Kin, both of which were directed by Sam Gold—whose super-subtle work Cabnet surreptitiously channels. The layers of complication between Larry and Dane power the play's mysteries, expanding and evolving well beyond the scant minutes the two spend sharing the stage. Rachel's disintegrating self-esteem becomes essential to describing her behavior as she lashes out against those she sees taking advantage of it. And Steve's early dopiness is so total that he stuns with his legitimate ability to become the glue that can repair mended souls.

Matt Dellapina and Reed Birney .
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Every character is a surprise and most every character is rich—the exception is, unfortunately, Dane, whose brief appearances (in two different versions of the same scene depicting his final moments alive) aren't sufficient for revealing a deeper person underneath. And though the play conveys a great deal about the good and bad ways we tend to deal with death and life, the abrupt ending doesn't cap these people's journeys as much as cut them off: These aren't people who are going to find closure anytime soon, but we suspect they can—and should—go a step or two further than Read takes them.

But within the realm of what's here, the actors do not disappoint (except again for Caras, who's fine, but doesn't have enough to work with). Dellapina's glazed-eye bravado intensely identifies Steve as a man who's in over his head, but doesn't want anyone to know it. Socha can be a bit strident in projecting Rachel's pain, but most of the time she, O'Connor, and Rothenberg effectively communicate the jumbled minds and sorrowful bodies of teenagers confronted with mortality at its most confusing. As Andrea, Sanders is hollowed-out desolation every moment she's onstage, her sunken eyes and fatigued voice betraying the unspeakable loss she's not yet discovered how to voice.

Birney is ideally cast as Larry, the closest thing to a central role. You believe him as both stern authoritarian and peacemaker, someone who long ago learned the importance of going on even if the world is grinding to a halt. He's a cunning match for Sanders, in particular: Andrea is dead herself because she's letting everything out, he's in just as perilous shape because of his refusal to. As Larry's role in Dane's existence and exit becomes clearer, Birney adopts a moving determination that he uses as a suit of armor: The message it sends, "If I can force my way through this, I can survive anything," is a sobering one, and as near as Read comes to dispensing an actual moral.

For him to insist upon more would be to suggest that a situation like this has easy answers, or for that matter any answers at all. Instead, he lets these people tell their own stories in their own words—both those they can spit out and, even more frequently, those they can't. The results aren't always pretty or precisely ordered, but death's nature is to impose temporary disorder on those left behind. It's in how the remaining characters learn that, and learn to progress beyond it, that is the real point. The Dream of the Burning Boy may have simple, fragmented dialogue, but the feelings beneath it are as varied as grief and as vital as the redemption it can inspire.

The Dream of the Burning Boy
Through May 8
Roundabout Theatre Company Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenue
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