Written by Lucienne Aggarwal and Robert Horton
While some stories fade into irrelevancy over time, great American playwright Lanford Wilson’s Burn This is sure to remain pertinent long after premiering last night at 12th Ave Arts on Capitol Hill. Produced by Seattle’s Theatre 22 and helmed by veteran director Corey McDaniel, Burn This continues to recognize the discrimination against the LGBTQ community with a humorous, human story about love, loss, and shame well after first opening Off-Broadway nearly three decades ago.
The performance stars Carolyn Marie Monroe as Anna, a dancer living in a lower-Manhattan loft with gay ad man Larry, played by the incomparable Alex Garnett, and her dancing partner Robbie. Anna’s world is turned upside down when Robbie dies in a tragic boating accident with his boyfriend, and the action subsequently begins with Anna returning home from the wake, where she complains to Larry and her boyfriend Burton, played by Jason Sanford, that Robbie’s family didn’t know him like they should have, and expresses disgust that his relatives would be ashamed of his sexual identity and care so little for his abilities as a dancer.
This familial shame physically manifests in their lives in the form of “Pale” Jimmy, Robbie’s drug-addicted, restaurant-managing older brother, portrayed by the talented Tim Gouran. When Pale first appears at the Manhattan apartment it’s a humor-packed confrontation in the middle of the night, a month later than he said he’d come to collect Robbie’s things. Trying to overcompensate for his deceased brother’s perceived lack of masculinity, Pale’s swaggering, expletive-ridden, macho behavior is a defense mechanism that inherently sparks conflict with Anna well before he employs homosexual slurs against his dead brother, but after she tries in vain to kick him out and he breaks down sobbing over Robbie, Anna recognizes his pain and they console each other.
Over the next few months, Anna’s connection with Pale over their shared loss begins to morph into something more as they take solace in each other and come to understand their emotions of guilt and grief. Anna is left to decide between Burton — the man she claims to love, but is emotionally dependent upon less than she is with Larry — and Pale, who can offer her the kind of emotional support she needs, albeit unexpectedly. The tension escalates during an intense New Year’s celebration, leaving the characters to wrestle with renewed feelings of loss and shame for their actions before Larry takes it upon himself to introduce a little love into all of their lives again.
The power of Lanford Wilson’s play is not only to highlight such concerns as love, friendship, sexuality, shame and grief but also to overturn our expectations about humans in general. The genius of Lanford’s play is to grapple with these topics simultaneously with gravity and humor. Larry is humor’s herald, using many jokes and verve to discuss life’s complexities. There’s a memorable scene where Larry talks about the impossibilities of an ad campaign for Chrysler. To make a universally appealing seasonal greeting that will offend no religion, Chrysler determines that the only thing universally applicable to people is the nuclear family; Larry quips that Chrysler obviously forgot about gay people. Larry can express his concerns about life without being smothered in bitterness. Pale, despite his tough guy persona is also able to express poignancy alongside humor, as demonstrated when he says, mixing humor and pain, “drinking and thinking is worse than drinking and driving.” People are complex and skilled playwrights like Wilson can show us that gravity and humor shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. In fact, humanity fares better when humor and pathos act in tandem.
The one issue with this play is that the narrative arc could have been strengthened by defining earlier relationships. Even though Anna declares Burton to be her boyfriend in both acts, their relationship wasn’t always convincing and Burton came across more as a friend. If Burton was identified solidly as Anna’s lover at the beginning, the tension that builds between Anna and Pale could have been even more intense. Having said that, the play is strong enough to maintain its momentum and keep the audience’s riveted attention throughout. Ultimately, it’s a successful and entertaining play.
The set was custom made for the play and was great featuring a loft style bed, a kitchenette and loft style windows and a balcony to boot. Though the onstage furniture is sparse, amounting to no more than a couch and a few barstools around the kitchen’s center island, the emptiness of the apartment amplifies the void the characters feel in the wake of Robbie’s death. The lighting was effective and well-timed and the sound of trains and seagulls in the opening scene provided genuine atmosphere. Original music, composed by Michael Owcharuk, was performed live by saxophonist Kate Olson during transitions between scenes.
We recommend seeing Burn This while you still can; there’s a whole lot to appreciate.
Burn This, written by Lanford Wilson and produced by Theatre22. Showing at 12th Ave Arts, 1620 12th Ave. Seattle, WA 98122. Located on Capitol Hill at the corner of 12th Ave. and E Pine St. Oct 27th to Nov 18th Thurs to Sat @ 8:00pm and Sundays Nov 5th and Nov 12th @ 2:00pm. Tickets https://theatre22.org/burn-this or call (206) 257-2203 . Info at blackboxoperations.org.