BWW Review: Firepower Performances, No-Nonsense Storytelling with Theatre22's BURN THIS at 12th Ave Arts
Whether it be platonic or romantic, everyone has been in a relationship with someone who makes no sense for them, or is unhealthy for them, or both. But at the time, it satisfied a need. It's a very specific kind of relationship that, if handled poorly by the director or the actors, will be glaringly unconvincing, given how wrong the two people are for each other. However, through Corey McDaniel's pristine direction and such a talented cast, Theatre22's "Burn This" is an example of high-caliber theatre. There are no gimmicks, there's no fuss, even the music is stripped down to a single saxophone played between scenes. If you're looking for quality, "Burn This" will provide (now at 12th Ave Arts).
Written in 1987 by Lanford Wilson, "Burn This" has been a staple of off-broadway theater since it's inception. It centers around four individuals mourning the loss of Robbie, a young dancer with tremendous promise who died with his partner in a tragic boating accident. Anna (Carolyn Marie Monroe) and Larry (Alex Garnett) were his roommates, and Burton (Jason Sanford) is Anna's boyfriend. Anna has just returned from Robbie's funeral, and she's utterly disgusted by Robbie's family. They deny Robbie's sexuality, know nothing of his talent as a dancer, and treated Anna like his girlfriend (because, why else would a man and a woman be living together?). As soon as a member of Robbie's family comes to pick up his stuff from the apartment, Anna never has to see another member of Robbie's family again (thank god!).
A coked-out whirling dervish bursts through Anna's door late one night complaining about some "jerk-off" tailing him while he was trying to park his car. Anna lets this stranger banging on her door into the apartment-why?-because he looks oddly familiar. This man is Robbie's older brother, Jimmy (aka Pale, played by Tim Gouran). Though Anna is initially startled and annoyed by by Pale's unannounced visit, she warms up to him as the two talk about the death of their mutual loved one.
Like Seinfeld or another show where all of the characters are kind of terrible, "Burn This" centers around four characters that, in the end, are all a little detestable. Larry is highly-dramatic and pretentious. Pale is homophobic, destructive, delusional, and crass. Burton's privileged upbringing has made his biggest problem the fact that his life has been too easy to generate decent art. Anna's the most decent one of the four of them, bar none, but she's a bit whiney and deceptive. And yet, their cynicism and abrasiveness has a very specific to New York City charm to it.
At times, Gouran's portrayal of Jimmy gives off Larry David vibes, if Larry David were a sharply dressed restaurant manager with a shiny helmet of black hair. Gouran's ability to make Pale so funny is a testament to his talent as a performer, capturing the nuances of his charm so that the audience can see what Anna sees in him. He's a brute, but he's at least funny, and certainly has the gift of gab.
That said, Pale is far from perfect, and says very homophobic things about his brother. In fact, Pale makes sure to come across as extra-macho and abrasive so as to not be associated with his "fruity" younger brother. Comparably, Pale vastly differs with Burton as well. Burton is preppy, peppy, and lives a cushy life. While Pale is scrappy, Burton is stable and clean. He's a reliable man that Anna, as Larry puts it, might as well "marry...and buy things", but their relationship is passionless. The show almost takes that lack of chemistry one step too far with Anna and Burton in that the performers had no chemistry whatsoever. There are moments when chemistry is called for (vis-à-vis Anna trying to seduce Burton on New Years Eve), but the two do not evoke a waning love.
But it's hard to compare to the incendiary chemistry between Anna and Pale, as well as the strong bond Anna and Larry have as friends. Burton feels like an outsider in the group, making his first-world problems even harder to connect with.
Not to say that Burton's problems are illegitimate. Burton is a cuckold, but Anna and Pale make such a fiery, entertaining affair. It's easy to feel bad for Burton, but it's difficult to root for him. Jason Sanford does what he can with the show's more milquetoast character, and incorporates some sexual ambiguity that keeps Burton's role interesting. It's really not until Act II that the nature of Burton and Anna's relationship becomes clear (what with Anna and Larry kissing hello just as Burton and Anna do).
As opposed to Larry and Pale, who are compelling and enjoyable from the start, Anna's character takes some warming up to. But that's why Carolyn Marie Monroe's portrayal is so exceptional, because, even in this extraordinary time in her life, Anna remains mildly unpleasant. She's not a nice person, but she's a complicated, ultimately sympathetic character that Monroe portrays brilliantly.
Now, for the comedic tour de force that is Alex Garnett's Larry: his performance is reason enough to go see this show. He's sarcastic, witty, and a grand presence. All the world's a stage for Garnett's Larry. He's the only one not tangled in this love triangle, and yet he steals the show whenever he's on stage.
Margaret Toomey's scenic design of Anna and Larry's apartment is nothing less than a replica of a humble Manhattan apartment from 1986. The level of detail is impressive.
Director Corey McDaniel really set up this cast for success by letting the performances do the bulk of the storytelling. This is a solid piece of theater: high-bar, well rounded, and captivating. For a stellar cast in an evocative and honest production, I give Theatre22's "Burn This" a highly enthusiastic A. I loved it.
"Burn This" performs at 12th Avenue Arts through November 18th, 2017. For tickets and information, visit them online at www.theatre22.org.