By Chris Hosking
After closing the opening season of Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July, Jeff Daniels asked the playwright if he would sign his copy of the script. Wilson wrote: “Make it all count”, and signed his name. It’s a sentiment that rang through the playwright’s career. He wrote with empathy, intelligence, and aching beauty about living (and loving) truthfully and boldly, and demanded excellence from his plays and actors.
Heading into my (and many of the audience’s) first theatre production post-Covid, a year of isolation, a supremely theatre-less year, there’s a sense more than ever that theatre should ‘make it count’. And what a play choice to do so with, as at its heart Burn This is a play about the necessity of allowing other people to deeply impact upon us, asteroids crashing and scarring each other. It’s a play about living on the very edge of your skin, however dangerous and painful that might feel in the moment.
The sense of the work’s importance, now more than ever, is surely not lost on actor Mark Diaco, who plays the male lead Pale, who has apparently spent the best part of 10 years trying to secure the rights in order to stage the show.
The play has always been a bit of an actors’ actor play. Actors who have played Pale and been nominated or awarded include John Malkovich, Edward Norton, Peter Sarsgaard and Adam Driver. Tall company. The role is full of wild contradictions, magnetism, frenetic energy and tortured emotion, with unstoppable tidal wave monologues that stretch and showcase an actors’ range.
In many ways the role can be viewed as a study of toxic masculinity, written decades before the term was invented. Pale has been brutally built and shaped by the life he has lived, and is unsure and unable to live with and contain the emotional traumas of his brother’s death, his guilt, and falling headfirst down into the abyss of love. The sexual politics of the production sit more uneasily than they may have in 1987. That said, it should be noted that the script does not endorse the massive dysfunctionality of Pale and Anna, but paints how their passion awakens all four of the characters. By the show’s end, no-one is asleep at the wheel. Their enlivened hands are now firmly gripping the wheel, (even if the car is often pointed towards a wall).
Diaco clearly relishes the challenge, as do fellow actors Jessica Clarke, Dushan Philips and Jacob Collins Levy who play Anna, Larry and Burton respectively. However, there’s a sense that they have been unsupported by Iain Sinclair’s direction. The focus on lived-in, honest performances and believable emotion is certainly admirable, but it comes here at the cost of structure and scaffolding. The actors have been given space and freedom for their performances to flourish: it’s generous, but not particularly kind. Without this, the few moments of emotional artificiality, idea progression gone off-kilter, and missed beats all ring more loudly than they needed to. There’s also the questionable choice of the well performed live music accompanying the show. This is a play of sweaty sleepless nights, fist fights, cocaine, raw exposed skin, and artistic breakthroughs – should this be musically represented or counter-pointed by a gentle high key tinkling cover of Springsteen’s I’m On Fire?
Image Chris Beck: Diaco (Pale)
Jessica Clarke’s Anna anchors the show, and she delivers beautiful notes of desperation, desire and anguish. She’s wondrously fluid, and as Anna tries to stand her ground and assert herself but progressively loses her capability to stand firm, Clarke’s changing sense of weight and inner-support is heart-breaking. Clarke also has mesmerizing presence and detail, but is sometimes unbelievable living in a dancer/choreographer’s body.
Mark Diaco barrels in as Pale at 100 miles an hour, and his energy and commitment meet the tall task of the character. He groans, folds in pain, struts, collapses and nails frailty propping up aggression. But the speed the script demands sometimes leave Diaco a sentence or two behind where he’s got to. When things do falter amidst Pale’s coked up contradictions, there’s a tendency for Diaco and Clarke to both focus internally and as a result the energy between them drops. The moments where Clarke and Diaco are able to hold the space between them and track into each other is where the play lights up and soars.
Dushan Phillips as Larry is a treasure, and the only thing the audience needs is more of him, in this and in other plays. His detail, timing, and command are delicate but sure-footed, and his ability to guide the tension from dramatic to comedic moments are all credit to his great capabilities.
Jacob Collins Levy rounds out the cast and brings a hilarious and touching sense of cis-white het privilege that gets rocked in his portrayal of Burton. The voice work across the cast is assured, and a quiet strength of the show. There’s an ease that’s shared that is accomplished and commendable.
Also beautiful is Clare Springett’s lighting design and Jacob Battista’s set. They go hand in glove, and are deliberate, sparse, brutal and pitch perfect. Springett’s suggestion of the NYC beyond this studio is deliciously noir, and Battista twists the vast and often industrial feeling of fortyfivedownstairs to work for him. That said, the performances, lighting and set are somewhat let down by the traverse staging.
If we are going to make this play count, let’s focus in on Anna bathed by blue light rooted to the spot by a sweating Pale. To have the tension and emotion imposed on the view of rows of masked and unmasked audience members does not throw the action in to relief, it muddies the attention.