"Burn This" Fails to Ignite at FPCT

Over the past year and a half, I have had the opportunity to become acquainted with the work of local director and designer Sherrionne Brown.  When I see her name attached to a project, I know I can, to a certain extent, relax knowing that the play and its players are in good hands.  That's not to say I like every play she does, but I've never had to even consider a lack of quality.  Until now.  And knowing what I do of her, I am also certain that the blame does not fall entirely with her.

Burn This, which opened last Friday at Fells Point Corner Theatre, is the lone blemish in an otherwise exemplary season so far.  The play, likely fresh as a daisy when they did it in 1990 (the play debuted on Broadway in 1987), is still relevant and surprisingly undated.  True, the thinly veiled allegory for the then-new AIDS crisis is barely a consideration any more.  But its basic themes, of love, loss and confusion in confusing times ring as true as if it were world premiering.  In fact, it is rather poignant language-wise when the "f-bomb" that is shocking for referring to a homosexual male rather than a sexual act.  I guess we can thank Isaiah Washington and Ann Coulter for that. Of course, perhaps it was that thinly veiled allegory that gave the play its edge back then, because this production at least, is nearly devoid of edge, let alone a spark.

Ms. Brown is a very hands-on theatre artist, not only directing the piece, but also designing the set, costumes, sound and props.  Were this not typical, I might suggest that perhaps she has spread herself a bit thin.  The set, especially given the space (long from down to up stage, short in width) is first rate.  It looks like you could live in it.  And the floor is lovely.  The costumes and props, contemporary, are fine and character/script appropriate.  The lighting, designed by Keith Sherman, is evocative and especially interesting at the start of act two.

The cast of four, all of whom have extensive credits, seems lost at sea.  After the first scene or so, it becomes very apparent that their command of the script is tenuous at best, and I'd be willing to bet that at least one of them still isn't 100% sure of the dialogue (I picture frantic page turning of scripts backstage after a rushed exit and unnecessarily long re-entry.)  At the very least, I am certain that some (if not all) of the players did not leave enough rehearsal time between being "off book" and the first public performance so that they may concentrate on making things move more naturally.  To a point, I guess, ultimately Ms. Brown has to take responsibility for that, but the four actors involved should know better.

The first scene takes place while the wounds of a friend's death and disastrous funeral are gaping open and fresh.  It is then that the almost Pinter-esque pauses between lines make the most sense.  This scene also features signature Brown direction – meaningful, natural staging – never forced and concerned with creating a fluid stage picture.  Therefore, as the rest of the play unfolds – comes apart, falls apart, etc. – it becomes apparent (at least to this reviewer) that the rest of the evening has less to do with bad direction than being ill-prepared.

One of the beauties of Lanford Wilson's works is his superior use of language, true to the characters he creates but almost poetic in its detail.  With that gift of language comes a certain responsibility for the actors in one of his plays to learn his words, not improvise them, repeat them needlessly or worst of all, make them up as they go along.

The cast boasts the talents of two of my favorite local actors, Rebecca Ellis(usually trodding the boards with CSC) and Tony Viglione (chosen last year by this reviewer as the best actor of 2006 for his riveting work in Southern Baptist Sissies).  The other two actors, Mike Nichols and Phil Gallagher, are new to me, but list relatively extensive credits in their program bios.  It, therefore, comes as a shock and, in one case in particular, a disappointment that their acting is so sub-par.

Viglione and Nichols have supporting roles, representing the central character, Anna's, roommate and lover, respectively.  Mr. Viglione's Larry offers the freshest take on a now well-worn character-type - the gay roommate.  He makes the interesting choice of nearly playing him straight – only the occasional pet name and penchant for quoting dramatic film dialogue betrays this man's feminine side.  And while his characterization may offer fewer laughs – you can hear in the lines that some of what Larry says is supposed to be a joke – it is also more refreshing.  It would have been easy, and sadly stereotypical to allow him to be a swishy queen.  Instead, he gives us a Larry where the "gay shtick" only surfaces when he needs to make a point or when he feels his audience expects it.  What a nice change from the expected.  Unfortunately, much of his time seems spent on guard – just waiting to step in if a mistake is made by others.  When he is not the focus of the scene he literally appears ready to pounce at any second.  The result is that on occasion it looks like he is the one who is making mistakes rather than helping to correct them.  Please note I said "looks like," as I am pretty certain that is not the case.   Mr. Nichols, saddled with the least interesting material, comes across as dull and extremely guarded.  Through whole sections of the play, he is virtually in monotone.  At first, I thought maybe he was struggling with his lines, but in hind sight, like with Mr. Viglione, I think he was concentrating so hard on what might happen if he or a cast mate dropped a line, that he was practically holding his breath.  And in doing so, he is stiff.  In act two, when he becomes the center of a scene, and thus less reliant on everyone around him, we get a glimpse of the character he has in him.  Perhaps after a few more performances are under their belts, both supporting actors can support with better characters rather than giving the appearance being ready to stamp out any fires.

In the leading roles of Anna and Pale, Rebecca Ellis and Phil Gallagher are walking question marks, and not because of their characters.  Ellis wanders the stage like she is looking for something and her movement and gesturing becomes more frantic the more obviously lost she (the actress, not the character) is.  You see, I'm not sure she has a firm grasp on the character.  She has the lost, frantic aspect of Anna down pat at first, but then as the character's dialogue shows she is growing and changing, Ellis makes little or no physical or emotional change.  As a result, every line she delivers becomes tentative and every movement seems improvised.  To make matters worse, Gallagher's role, Pale, is intentionally perplexing (it was written for John Malkovich, a master at making perplexing characters accessible), and he is, therefore, that much harder to take, let alone understand.  And it doesn't help that Gallagher is using a completely unconvincing and extremely thick accent – at times Bronx-ish, sometimes Brooklyn-ish, and still others a sad imitation of characters from The Godfather or The Sopranos.  He is unintentionally and inappropriately funny at times, and at others over-the-top in severity.  Pale is an unwanted guest, and he should make the characters and the audience uncomfortable, but given how the play ends up – he and Anna become lovers – Gallagher might have shown some hints that there is a guy in there we should care about or at least understand why Anna goes to bed with him (Pale isn't particularly sexy or charming).  Again, he seems more focused on how he is talking than what he is saying.  There is a difference between having your lines memorized and actually KNOWING them.  Ms. Ellis and Mr. Gallagher might have them memorized (and tentatively at that), but only occasionally do they seem to KNOW them.  The result is that the eventual relationship between the two characters seems to come out of nowhere, and with no reasoning behind it – I am certain I am not the only one who left the theatre thinking, "Who would want either of these people?"

Actually, I am certain I am not the only one who left the theatre thinking, "What WAS that?"

PHOTOS by Amy Jones. MAIN PAGE: Rebecca Ellis, Mike Nichols and Tony Viglione.  TOP to BOTTOM: (L to R) Phil Gallagher, Rebecca Ellis, Mike Nichols, and Tony Viglione; Tony Viglione and Mike Nichols; Phil Gallagher and Rebecca Ellis.

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