Wilson's Burn This Opens at the HCAC
The revival of Lanford Wilson's Burn This runs now through September 26th at the Hackensack Cultural Arts Center. Produced by The Company Theatre Group and directed by Lou Scarpati, Burn This introduces us to four people attempting to make sense of their newly defined lives in the face of a shared tragedy. Although Lanford Wilson has an incredible body of work, Burn This is recognized as one of his weaker pieces. In fact, I propose the only reason why the original production was so successful was that it starred a young John Malkovich and Joan Allen.
Why would someone even want to revive this show? It's insufferably long. It clocks in at three hours, not counting an intermission. If I'm dedicating three hours of my life to your play, I hope you're Eugene O'Neill. Secondly, Wilson's characters are damaged beyond empathy. (Think Tracy Letts without the charm.) They also completely lack dimension. Openly-gay Wilson actually made the character of Larry, a homosexual, a complete and utter punch line. You can argue that Burn This could be an exercise in "phoning it in."
The Company Theatre Group's production of Burn This is best described as predicable. All of Scarpati's staging was boxed into a small proscenium. Even though the stage was admittedly small, the Hackensack Cultural Arts Center also has a beautiful large house with adjustable seating. I would have rather seen the stage closed off and bring everything to the floor, so the audience could be closer to the action.
Transitions were very awkward the night I saw it. They were simple lights up, lights down. Fine. However, sometimes transitions went to 50%, exposing the running crew (who was not dressed in black) changing the set dressing. It was a very unpolished.
The most frustrating aspect of the show was the (lack of) sound design. The floor microphones buzzed with feedback the entire first act. At some point, I couldn't figure out what was feedback, ambient theatre noise or actual sound design. I would have appreciated it if the crew spent less time reminding us to unwrap candy before the show and spent more time checking the equipment.
Although resources were meager, sometimes that could be a blessing in disguise. With a show as flawed as Burn This, I would have loved to see this production use its assets in a more an innovative way to keep the audience engaged. I think that would have truly taken this show from an interesting community theatre choice to an inventive professional regional production.
The cast did an admirable job, considering the imperfections of the piece. I could feel that they were actively trying to produce some authentic human behavior, so Scarpati does deserve credit for keeping them on point. The production's stand out would have to be Shelleen Kostabi. Playing the role of Anna, the choreographer caught in a love triangle, Kostabi did an elegant job of finding subtleties in the role. She made Anna far more complex than she appears on the page.