1987: the year of living loftily
by Sally Mitani
My respect for playwright Lanford Wilson (best known for his wonderfully titled Hot L Baltimore) shot through the roof with this production of Burn This. High five for the Performance Network Theatre, too.
Twenty-five-year-old plays are usually awkward adolescents--too old to coo over just because they're cute and say the darnedest, most unexpected things; too young to have any wisdom. Burn This (set in 1987, it opened off-Broadway in that year), wears its 1987-ness very, very well. So well that I went home unable to shake two seemingly unrelated movies out of my head: Moonstruck and Fatal Attraction. I quickly found out why. Both were among the top ten grossing movies of 1987.
What were people doing back then that made it such a vintage year? In Fatal Attraction, and in Burn This, women are living in lower Manhattan lofts and establishing successful careers for themselves in the arts. Fatal Attraction suggested that we should be wary of women who choose this lifestyle, that they are one rejection away from a psychotic break. Wilson, on the other hand, takes it as a given that this life is as bracing and productive for a woman as for a man.
As for Moonstruck, I'd have thought of it no matter what year it came out. Darrell Glasgow, as a character named Pale, looks and moves so distractingly like Moonstruck's Nicholas Cage, I've got to believe he hasn't seen the movie, or else he'd rein it in just to avoid being sued for plagiarism. But more to the point--maybe to complement those careering women in lofts--1987's men were widening their emotional spectrum. Moonstruck's Cage played a Brooklyn working stiff, falling fearlessly, scorchingly, annihilatingly in love with someone he knows he shouldn't. Wilson uses exactly this device for Pale--but ups the ante by throwing Pale in among artists, and the role bristles with questions about who artists are and what function they serve. Pale, a working-class guy from, in this case, Jersey, rides
his emotional torrents of grief and desire like a cowboy strapped to a bucking bronco. The other three characters, all artists, are shocked: they're used to scrutinizing their inner lives with irony and formal detachment.
White-hot Glasgow is the scene stealer, but he gets terrific backup from the rest of the ensemble: Quetta Carpenter (as Anna, a loft-living choreographer), Jon Bennett (as Burton, her lover), and Kevin Young (as Larry, Anna's gay roommate). It's a beautifully wrought production, except in one respect: I had trouble buying Anna as a dancer--her fine, toned body lacks that high carriage and catlike, narcissistic grace, and I saw her more as a woman who spends hours on a StairMaster. I note with interest that the men got a fight choreographer (Joseph Zettelmaier, who must have done a fantastic job). Why couldn't they hire a dance coach for Carpenter? Perhaps there's more gender parity on the 1987 set than backstage.
[Originally published in September, 2012.]