Burn This

Ben Miles Reviews - Theater

The acclaimed dramatist Langford Wilson died last month at age 72. But before his departure from this earthly stage, his 1987 play, Burn This, was already in production for its April 3rd opening at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum.

Wilson’s scripts—Hot L Baltimore is a prime example—offer actors the opportunity for deep and faceted characterizations, in plots that seem taken from the gritty, pitiless corridors of urban American life, circa late 20th century. Under Nicholas Martin’s straight-arrow direction of this L.A. revival of Burn This, we get the full-flavor of Wilson’s way with words, as well as a taste of his talent for transforming a quotidian situation into a dramatic circumstance.

The show opens with New York choreographer Anna (the lush and limber Zabryna Guevara) grieving the loss of her friend and roommate Robbie, in their lower Manhattan Loft (Ralph Funicello’s cityscape scenic design is an intricate replication of the “city that never sleeps”). Robbie was a professional dancer who happened to be gay.

Soon Anna is joined in her sadness by her love-interest, Burton (Ken Barnett, poised and confident), a wealthy screenwriter. Later Anna’s other “roomy,” Larry (Brooks Ashmanskas in a hilarious, albeit stereotypical performance), makes his grand and quite queenly entrance. Larry too was once a dancer. Now, with his outgoing personality, he’s moved onto advertising; he’s an ad-man.

When Robbie’s brother, Pale (Adam Rothenberg in a high-pitched portrayal), unexpectedly arrives at Anna’s apartment—drunk and disheveled—Anna is somehow touched by his combination of volatility and vulnerability (though many of us theater patrons may not grasp or appreciate what supposedly is explained as shear animal magnetism between the two). 

Wilson’s play irritates, but it does so with authenticity; it’s the same sort of irritation that comes with seeing a worthy lady take up with an undeserving lout. We ask ourselves, what could she possibly see in him? But when pheromones take over, the senses can conquer the mind in a fashion similar to a swarm of piranha consuming a water buffalo. The bison doesn’t stand a chance. Maybe that’s what accounts for such well-worn clichés as hopelessly, helplessly in love and love is often blind. But in the case of Anna and Pale, another bromide may come to consciousness: There’s no accounting for taste.

And, for this critic, that’s what’s infuriating about Wilson’s would-be love story: We tend to lose patience with Anna’s serial set of poor choices. It’s intriguing that Wilson would have choreographer as a career for Anna. The contrast that exists when we compare Anna’s professional path—requiring concentration, self- control, and discipline—to the rocky road of her personal life, is indeed a wide divide.

Pale, on the other hand, is a rough-hewed New Jersey restaurant manager. He’s as uncouth and blunt as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. The difference in scenarios is telling, however. In Tennessee Williams’ “Streetcar,” Stanley is the one intruded upon. In Wilson’s relational query, Pale is the intruder, which leads us back to the question raised earlier: What could she possibly see in him? Readers, if you have any speculations or feel that you’re able to account for Anna’s unlikely attraction to the pugnacious Pale, contact the critic at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . He would love to consider your thoughts on the matter.

Burn This continues at the Mark Taper Forum—135 North Grand Avenue, Los Angeles—through May 1. Show time are Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Matinees are at 2:30 p.m. on Saturdays and 1 p.m. on Sundays. There’s also a 6:30 p.m. performance on Sundays. For reservations, dial (213) 628- 2772. For online ticketing, visit www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.