11 December 2004: Wilson, Burn This

Matinee. Huntington Theatre Company, Boston University. Directed by Susan Fenichell

One of Lanford Wilson’s best plays, in a fine, well mounted production, under the nearly transparently good direction of Susan Fenichell. Similarly fine work by James Noone, scenic design; Candice Donnelly, costumes; and Mary Louise Geiger, lighting.

The setting, a loft apartment in lower Manhattan, has just the right combination of claustrophobia and spaciousness, befitting a play about cramped emotional conditions but a play with a happy ending. Wilson goes to great efforts to be brutally honest with himself, and he holds his characters to the same high standard; but he is also an optimist who perceives the possibility and the prospect itself, at the end of a torturous road, of the healing power of truth.

A major character in the play is one who never appears: Robbie, a talented dancer and the roommate of Anna and Larry (the other occupants of the loft), who has been killed along with his lover Dominic in a boating accident. In the aftermath, as Anna, a choreographer who was making a dance for Robbie, grieves and tries to come to terms with the loss, Robbie’s older brother, Jimmy (called “Pale,” as in Very Special Old Pale, his alcoholic drink of preference) arrives in the apartment much the worse for cocaine and an unmanageable grief of his own. His arrival sets going a stormy relationship between Pale and Anna, inevitably triangulating her gay roommate Larry and her screenwriter boyfriend Burton. Anna fights against her strong instincts of attraction to Pale, who has a wife and chil­dren in Coral Gables but is separated from them and is working exhaust­ing hours in the restaurant business, and whose deep unhappiness ends up bruising everyone who crosses his path, including Larry, the funny and patient and wise sidekick character, and Burton, a person who represents safety and normality for Anna but whose scripts have met with only indifferent success because he has never experienced personal loss — as he himself admits in one of several truth-telling sequences that punc­tuate the play.

In fact, it seems to be Wilson’s view that loss is a primary catalyst in human life: periodically, and perhaps mysteriously, it simultaneously hurts people deeply and opens them to gain and growth. And so the play ends with Anna acknowledging her deep need for Pale, and his need for her, despite his seeming commitments, his notably unstable personality, and his prospects, problematic at best.

The four actors all give fine performances —Anne Torsiglieri as Anna, Brian Hutchinson as Burton, Nat DeWolf as Larry, and Michael T. Weiss as the firebrand Pale. Each actor finds a full, seamless identification with their character and achieves a clear profile, while also finding scope in the role to allow the character to grow and become more complex. DeWolf found the well of reserves of moral character in Larry, an out-of-the-closet gay man whose funny, almost clownish side initially comes to the fore but who proves to be a patient, understanding, sympathetic friend who, despite the odds, sees how it is between Anna and Pale and finally brings the two back together at last. He is a pulsating dynamo of energy, an undeniable pres­ence whenever he is on stage, who manages to combine in the character an unorthodox combination of scariness and tenderness that, despite his emin­­ently disruptive tendencies, makes him a sympathetic figure for the audience and a plausible and even satisfying match for the beleaguered Anna — feelingly yet crisply portrayed by Torsiglieri. She has the good timing of a fine comic actress, combined with an ability to reveal the complex depths of a troubled woman torn or at least made unhappy and insecure over the age-old dilemma of accommodating personal needs and desires with the increasing demands imposed by a successful career in the arts.

All in all, a very satisfying, pleasurable, and affecting afternoon in the theatre.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book