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"If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere ... ." That rhapsodic paean to The Big Apple could easily be the theme music for Langford Wilson's Burn This, currently on the boards at Le Chat Noir. But its use would be ironic. Not in the sense that the play negates those values. It presents, instead, a troubling conflict between cultural aspirations and erotic fulfillment.

If you do not believe a mysterious transcendence can take place erotically between two seemingly mismatched individuals, then this play is a study of obsession -- in the manner of Manon Lescaut or Of Human Bondage (with the customary updated flip in genders). Actually, that's not a bad reading. For though Burn This ends with a gentle suggestion of hope, one can't help glancing from the immediate warm glow to the path ahead -- aware perhaps of another more ancient anthem, "Plaisir d'amour ne dure qu'un moment ..." (or, "The pleasure of love only lasts for a moment ...").

Here's the setup: three successful young creative types have been sharing a loft in Manhattan. Anna is a serious modern dancer. She was the partner and protege of loft mate Robbie, who recently died in a freak boating accident. Robbie was gay -- a fact either unknown or unadmitted by Robbie's narrow-minded and uneducated family, which showed no interest in his brilliant career. The third loft mate, an adman named Larry, is also gay. Though a font of hilarious nellie witticisms, Larry is worried about Anna and tries to help her in her grief.

Anna has a serious relationship with Larry, a screenwriter who gets $400,000 for the first draft of movies that he doesn't believe in. However, he is tempted, despite all his fears, to try to write something meaningful.

Into this group of arty types bursts Pale, Robbie's older brother. Drunk, stoned, coarse, belligerent, he is a vandal -- in both the modern and classic sense: a barbarian deeply suspicious and resentful of culture. He is, in short, the anti-hero. We sense, from his first appearance, that Anna will end up in the sack with him.

Does Pale, in fact, offer some redeeming, basic vitality? Is he actually a sensitive, intelligent soul, lost in a pain and rage, who can be saved by an open and caring erotic connection? I can't say I walked out of the theater with a convincing answer to those questions. But, beyond endowing these characters with wonderfully rich and effective dialogue, playwright Wilson has taken care not to stack the deck in favor of a facile conclusion. Anna, for instance, is furious at herself for having gotten involved with Pale. And Burton, her screenwriter lover, is shown as complex and manly (all the mothers in the house will no doubt cast their votes for him).

The production, co-directed by Perry Martin and Dane Rhodes, is excellent. To begin with, designer David Raffel (who also did the recent Small Craft Warnings) has clearly mastered the daunting intricacies of creating strong, effective sets at the Chat.

As Anna, Mary Lee Gibbons rises to the demands of her most challenging role to date. She is poised and convincing and we feel the great danger she has placed herself in by this rash, ambiguous surrender. Rudy Rasmussen is a delight as Larry, managing with ease the delicate trick of playing the humor of this queen -- "Believe me, I rank no higher than lady-in-waiting" -- without ever sacrificing his humanity. Aaron Blakely gives us a credible and substantial Burton. C. Caine Lee, as Pale, pulls off a bit of stunning prestidigitation by being obnoxious and likable, almost simultaneously, the way a spinning coin shows both its faces at once. Pale is the weird keystone without which the whole story collapses. And it's one of those roles that's just begging to be overdone. Lee plays him big, as needed, but never goes over the top.

Meanwhile, at Drama!'s recent evening of original one-acts, the trials and tribulations of being gay were viewed from a mostly comic perspective by five local writers.

Adam & Steve, written and directed by Keith Istre, was a cautionary tale about the dangers of "looking for Mr. Right, but settling for Mr. Right now." Bar Stories, directed by Lewis Routh and Black Balu, was a sampler of five tales by different authors (Marinda Woodruff, Ginger Snapp, Pat Bourgeois, Timm Holt and Routh).

This was an often amusing potpourri that benefited by a friendly, in-on-the-joke audience. High polish was not the order of the day. The pieces were more like skits done at a party -- with all the charm and flaws such a description suggests.

click to enlarge Playing with fire: Aspiring dancer Anna (Mary Lee - Gibbons) sees passion and trouble in the form of - roughneck Pale (C. Caine Lee) in Burn This. - JOHN BARROIS
  • John Barrois
  • Playing with fire: Aspiring dancer Anna (Mary Lee Gibbons) sees passion and trouble in the form of roughneck Pale (C. Caine Lee) in Burn This.


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