Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Is It Still Flaming Hot? - Burning - Play Review

Burning – The New Group at the Acorn Theatre in Theatre Row – Off-Broadway – New York, NY - *** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Thomas Bradshaw, Directed by Scott Elliott
Runs until Dec. 17 2011

Taboos only become taboos when a societal construct deems something so. When a unified response deems something morally reprehensible within human kind. So what happens when you have individual people who become so matter-of-fact with their urges and beliefs that they begin defying societal rules in order to satisfy ones own logic of identity?

Burning, the provocative and controversial new play by Thomas Bradshaw pokes at societal buttons in two somewhat-related stories in two different decades. In the 80’s, an established gay couple, who produce and star in Broadway shows, take in a gay teenage orphan wanna-be-actor, where the lines between servant, son, and sexual toy begin to blur. Fast forward to current times, and we see a Black painter who hides his race from the press, gets his racially shocking art pieces get misinterpreted at a Berlin gallery, winning the fans from a sibling duo of Neo-Nazis.

The premise is loaded enough, with plenty of fascinating and disturbing events and characters to explore. While the two stories are really connected with a third story, the link between the two seems more like a story contrivance than anything to further the two main stories. In fact, there’s so much going on, that this could have been easily split into two plays and had a deeper exploration behind some of the characters underlying decisions. The balance between the two plays, with wildly different tones, may help the overall epic nature of the play, but as fascinating and interesting as I could get involved in all the characters, the end left me still unconnected to several characters, including the German siblings (Drew Hildebrand and Reyna de Courcy) and the older gay theatre couple (Andrew Garman and Danny Mastrogiorgio).

When the play does work, the taboos don’t feel piled on for controversy’s sake, and the characters actually sound reasonable even while they dryly justify their actions. When the play works at its best, we get an understanding of why a character behaves and does the things they do, whether it be a need to simply satisfy human urges, or to use sexual power to advance themselves in a game of human chess.

Hunter Foster (Urinetown, Million Dollar Quartet) as the older version of the teenage boy Chris, who has now grown into a terrible actor, and Stephen Tyrone Williams (above with Doss) as Peter, the painter, are particularly convincing. Barrett Doss (as Gretchen, a German prostitute) and Larisa Polonsky (as Peter's wife) create fascinating portrayals, while Vladimir Versailles (as a relative of Peter's who meets Chris) and Evan Johnson (as the teenage orphan) bring a wonderful knowing naivety. However, the cast is wildly uneven and some seemingly in completely different plays (which in a way, they are). Was this Elliott’s intent? Maybe, as some comical moments seem to purposefully counter the mundane tone that re-affirms the matter-of-fact nature of the characters’ rationalization. The constant disrobing of characters and the amount of simulated sex becomes almost becomes a crux in the storytelling, or again, is the repetitiveness an effort to desensitize the audience?

There’s a beautiful set by Derek McLane (How To Succeed in Business, Without Really Trying, Anything Goes) that has nicely integrated lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski (Born Yesterday, Anything Goes) and video design by Wendall Harrington and Elliott manages to keep the many strands of storylines from the large ensemble cast easily separable and understandable while sharing the small stage.

While Burning has apparently been met with all sorts of strong reactions, I surprisingly found the play fascinating but never found it incendiary. I definitely did not hate it, but I never found the different stories connecting in a satisfying manner, and I'm not sure if it's because I missed some deeper level or layer, or if the play just never quite reaches the brilliancy it seems to seek. Nonetheless, for a play almost clocking in at 3 hours, I never found myself bored, though that neutral reaction may in fact inflame Bradshaw's intent.

Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

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