Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lanford Wilson's "Burn This" is a new contemporary classic. Shattered Globe Theatre is kicking off its 2012-2013 season with a strong staging to the play.
The play takes place in mid-October, 1987 in a loft in New York, and begins shortly after the funeral of Robbie, a young gay dancer who drowned in a boating accident with his lover Dom. Robbie's roommates tell the story of the funeral, and how the loss of this talented young man will be felt. The roommates are Robbie's sensitive dance partner and choreographer, Anna, and confident gay ad man Larry.
Soon joining them in Robbie's lower-Manhattan loft is trust fund baby and screenwriter Burton, who is Anna's longtime lover. The three remember Robbie as they knew him: talented, hard working and loving. They also realize that Robbie's large and traditional family did not know he was gay, a dancer or in a relationship.
Two months later, Pale, Robbie's coke-snorting, hyperactive, gun-toting restaurant manager brother, shows up at 5 a.m. looking for Robbie's stuff. He is angry, bigoted, compelling and clearly has not made peace with the life or death of his little brother. He rolls around the loft like a bee in a box, babbling at Anna, who clearly is both attracted and repulsed by him, and asking questions like, "So is the other guy a faggot, too?"
Unsurprisingly, Pale and Anna sleep together, and that goes badly. Pale is married with two kids (which he failed to mention) and Anna is in a long-term and boring relationship with Burton, who wants to marry her, settle down and have kids.
Anna is struggling with her transition from dancer to choreographer. Fast forward to 1988 and the roommates are entertaining Burton, when Pale shows up again, drunk and unannounced. Burton and Pale brawl and Burton figures out Pale and Anna have slept together. And things get messy.
All four of the characters have to reassess their lives over the course of the play, which takes about six months. In the face of their shared tragedy, the quartet attempts to make sense of their lives reconsidering their own identities and relationships.
Anna learns to be independent and self-confident; she pursues her interest in choreography and begins a relationship with Pale, breaking off her dispassionate relationship with her longtime boyfriend.
Larry, the least developed character but one of the most compelling on stage, with a very strong performance by Jake Szczepaniak, hints at a larger tragedy looming in his life. It seems to put the entire romantic he said/she said into its proper place for him by the end.
Burton has to accept his art and his life have been less than authentic and consider his artistic and romantic future in a new light, one where he might not win.
Ryan Kitley walked a knife's edge in his performance as Pale. Pale is kind of a jerk. An old-school bigot, cheater, know-it-all, we learn that he was Robbie's favorite brother who not only genuinely grieves Robbie's death, but also the fact that he really never knew him. He is simultaneously repulsive and charming, attractive and troglodyte. As soon as Pale enters a scene, things happen, and that is refreshing in this very talkie play.
The dialogue, gender roles and homophobia displayed in the play are very timely. The wide gap between Pale's ideas of art, homosexuality, dance and platonic gay/straight roommate relationships smack up against the way the roommates live and talk. But the easy way gay slurs, misogynistic slurs and prevailing attitudes about gender roles are thrown around and left without comment, feel very dated.
Kate LoConti as Anna manages to be both vulnerable and arrogant in her role as woman artist, sexual woman and a woman considering entering a traditional wife and mother role.
"Burn This" is a concise examination of a time in history where roles started to change and people began to think differently, and it examines that in the small worlds of four people (five, if you count the dead friend, a la "The Big Chill"). The fact it morphed into some true love soul mate story was a little too pat for me, but everything else about the play and this production were strong and clear.
"Burn This" runs through Nov. 18 at Theater Wit and the Shattered Globe Theater, 1229 Belmont, Chicago. For info or tickets, call 773-795-8150 or visit the Shattered Globe Theatre website at shatteredglobe.org.