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Review: Burn This by The Huntington Theatre Company
We just subscribed to the Huntington for the first time in about ten years. We stopped after a horrendous season that culminated with Cymbeline, the worst Shakespeare by a professional company I’ve ever seen. Since then we’ve picked and chosen our Huntington performances. But this season we know we’re going to want to see just about everything they are doing. We’ve already seen Gem of the Ocean and Sonia Flew, both excellent. Plus they offered us a deal we couldn’t refuse – $210 for 6 shows. So we are subscribers again.
I liked Burn This overall and would recommend it. It’s not earth shattering in its exploration of the four characters. The plot is no mystery. After the first act you know what’s coming and it’s not easy to imagine what’s going to make it interesting. You know there’s got to be a showdown between Burton and Pale and you know that Anna has already made her choice. So the play depends heavily on the actors to make it something worth seeing.
Nat DeWolf (who I must have seen on Broadway in Take Me Out but don’t remember) played Larry perfectly. It would have been easy to go too far into stereotypical queeniness but DeWolf stays understated and makes sure not to upstage any of the other actors. This was not easy since he’s the comic relief and since Anne Torsiglieri’s Anna doesn't have much of a presence and Burton is written to be upstaged and accurately portrayed that way by Brian Hutchison.
Michael T. Weiss is great as Pale – easily the high point of the play and alone worth going to see. His body language is dead on – imposing, high energy, always striking the right distance from Anna, moving around the space so that you know he’s measuring it and getting ready to let loose but without telegraphing. He’s able to turn on a dime with the text and it’s a pleasure to watch just all-around great acting, which I guess you should expect from a guy with his credentials.
Burton is appropriately bland. Not terribly convincing as a writer as demonstrated in his inability to express big emotional concepts such as what he’s experienced in Canada. What life experience he has is contrived – as captured by his description of a blow job in a doorway that he accepted for the experience of it and then never thought of again. If you’re never going to think of it again that it isn’t really much of an experience is it? When Burton says at the end “I’ve never really lost anything” Larry speaks for us all when he says “I know.” Hutchison plays this well, ambling about the stage comfortably – you immediately understand that Anna could be comfortable with him but never passionate.
Directorally the show down between Burton and Pale was not the strongest moment of the play. There just wasn’t the energy of a real fight. It felt staged from beginning to end. There wasn’t the tenseness you’d expect from two big guys about to hit each other. Pale is physically menacing, both toward Anna and as he describes of the bar fight he's just been involved in. But when he does fight it’s incongruous. And there’s no way Burton, an Aikido instructor would just double up and wait for the kick in the ribs after the punch to the stomach. I recently saw another Lanford Wilson play, Fifth of July, in New York, with a fight scene that seemed much more real.
I just wish I had liked Anne Torsiglieri’s performance better. She gave me no sense of who Anna’s character was. From her opening lines it seemed as if she wasn’t sure who she was either. She delivers them for the benefit of the audience rather than to the two people she knows best in the privacy of her home. And yet, once you buy into the idea that this is intentional, that she is a performer who is always on, she retreats and really doesn’t seem to make any other strong choices that give you a clue about where she comes from. She plays straight while the men revolve around her. But there’s much more that character needs to do than stand back and be entertained with the audience. For example, when Pale barges in to her apartment at in the morning, Anna responds to him in the same flatness, lack of inflection, with which she endures all of her scenes. If a big menacing guy barged in at and started swearing and pacing and undressing, you’d expect something in the way of fear, anger – some intense emotion– but here there’s none. Toward the end of the play Larry explains that Anna has “never had to carry her own passport” but Anna never conveys this herself.
What’s more problematic is that Anne Torsiglieri is unconvincing as a dancer – she doesn’t move like a dancer, she doesn’t stretch like a dancer. When she says she is stiff from not dancing for two days her movements are not at all those of a stiff dancer. This is ironic since Torsiglieri has a musical theater background and surely does dance. It almost seems that she was directed not to act like a dancer.
This is not a play I would rush out to see again but the Huntington’s version was definitely worth seeing for at least three of the four performances.