By Michael H. Margolin
Lanford Wilson, who died just last year, wrote some two dozen plays, encapsulated the fever of off- Broadway in the 1960s, then captured Broadway with his characters, both straight and gay. He was nominated for three Tony Awards, won a Drama Desk Award and an Obie, as well as the Pulitzer. More graphic and more “out” than Tennessee Williams, he brought the gay sensibility – without Williams’ filigree and disguises – closer to the mainstream, and was a bridge between Williams and Edward Albee.
Performance Network has staged this play about heterosexual obsession while still embracing the gay sensibility: “Burn This” begins after the death of Robbie, a gay man and dancer, who lived with his sometime dance partner, Anna, and Larry, a gay man who works in advertising. Robbie’s brother, Pale, intrudes with his steamy, needy, grief stricken, cocaine powered presence in the New York loft the three shared.
He becomes, for us, the dead brother’s doppelganger, representing his queer-hating New Jersey family, the coarseness of a man running a restaurant connected to the mob and a sexual harbinger of the conflict for Anna who loved the dead Robbie but could not love him sexually.
Meanwhile, Burton, a successful movie writer of science fiction in a long-term relationship with Anna, is in for a bumpy night over the next few months. The time is 1987, and the play ends in 1988 following a helluva New Year’s Eve.
In the last decade or so, The Purple Rose Theatre has paid homage to Wilson’s great works, first in a revival of the splendid “The Hot l Baltimore,” followed by two world premieres. It is good to see another in Wilson’s oeuvre. (“Fifth of July,” which helped launch Jeff Daniels’ career, is available on video along with three other adaptations of Wilson plays.)
Director Ray Schultz has, like a launched missile, sought the heat in the script, and the first act, while well staged, lacks modulation: Everyone seems directed at a feverish pitch, and Anna, played by Quetta Carpenter, is pushed almost to shrewishness. As Pale, Darrell Glasgow, has a punishing monologue, and he too goes beyond the speed limit – though his sheer physical energy is laudable. Overheard in the lobby, one theatergoer to another, “There was too much shouting in that play.”
In Act Two, the pitch is lower and all four actors achieve a delicate balance. Kevin Young gives the wisecracking gay man performance without some of the affectations that mar mainstream depictions, and Jon Bennett plays the passionate playwright and banished lover with a stolid panache.
Here the actors and Wilson blend beautifully. Bennett’s brief story about his sexual encounter with another man one snowy evening is a gem. Larry, with embellishments, goes and tells it on the mountain. Bennett’s dispassionate involvement and Larry’s hyperbolic version are the yin and yang of Wilson.
Both Carpenter and Glasgow bring flesh tones to their performances, intensity without raucousness, tenderness without overplaying, and the relaxation works, as each gives in to their neediness.
Monika Essen’s 1987 loft/ballet studio is well produced, and Suzanne Young’s costumes are apt. Mary Cole’s lighting design is perhaps a bit too cool. Rather loud pop music – probably germane to the era – is played, also somewhat loudly, during scene changes, and Joseph Zettlemaier contributes well staged fight scenes: Oh, yes, they do come to blows as well as blow jobs.
Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. Thursday-Sunday through Sept. 2. 140 minutes. $27-$34. 734-663-0681. http://www.performancenetwork.org