By Hank Pollard / Special to The Malibu Times | September 13, 2013
The newly renovated Malibu Playhouse opened its 2013-14 season last Friday evening to a sell-out audience with the West Coast premiere of “The Dream of the Burning Boy,” by David West Read. And while this play deals with bereavement, it is leavened with considerable dark humor.
The premise of the drama is set by the startling death of Dane, a high school student who collapses of a brain aneurysm outside the door of his English teacher’s office after pleading for a higher grade on his paper. In a series of short scenes separated by blackouts, the play explores the gamut of the reactions—grief, anger, guilt, frustration, bewilderment—experienced by the people in Dane’s life.
Despite such a grim preamble, however, the play has light moments.
The principal characters are Dane’s teacher, Larry, and sister, Rachel, also a student. Larry (Jeff Hayenga) is a seemingly buttoned-down bachelor dedicated to his profession, but who harbors a terrible secret. He bursts it open mid-play, provoking gasps from the audience. The ramifications of this disclosure reverberate, and by play’s end Larry’s composure is in tatters. Hayenga, a veteran of stage, TV and film, captures with nuanced subtlety Larry’s initial self-possession and then his subsequent tortured disintegration.
Rachel (Jayne McLendon), the dead boy’s sister, cannot process the death and lashes out with anger. Her acid resentment cows whomever it is directed against. But when she relents briefly and exhibits vulnerability the impact is powerful. This occurs most poignantly when she strips to her underwear in front of Kyle, her brother’s buddy. At another point she briefly puts aside her anger and recites a poignant eulogy peppered with funny literary allusions.
Steve (Tyler Ritter), the school’s guidance counselor, is pressed into service as grief counselor. He ineptly but enthusiastically attempts to assuage the student body’s grief by putting up posters with banal slogans such as “Everything Will Be All Right” and “When You See Someone, Say Something Nice.” Later Steve shows maturity by providing comfort to a grieving Larry. Steve’s complex character is portrayed by Ritter initially in an appropriately clueless manner and then with empathetic sensitivity.
A one-scene standout performance is submitted by Melissa Kite as Andrea, Dane’s mother. She meets with Larry and her barely controlled agony and anger seethe below the surface. When they finally erupt it is a heart-stopping moment. An extraordinary actor, this is Kite’s debut performance with the Malibu Playhouse and she boasts an impressive record of stage, TV and film credits.
Dane’s friends Chelsea (Joslyn Kramer) and Kyle (Zach Palmer) are also casting about in the wake of his loss. Chelsea, a pretty air-head who was dating Dane, is unsure how to demonstrate her grief and does it clumsily. This is Kramer’s first professional theater performance and it is a promising debut. Kyle, a more complicated character, is attracted to Rachel and tries to draw her out of her anger but with limited success. The play makes sure Dane (21-year-old Malibu High grad Matthias Chrans) is not completely gone from memory, when he later makes an appearance in a dream sequence.
“Burning Boy,” written by young Canadian-American playwright David West Read, comes on the heels of a successful Broadway run of his comedy, “The Performers,” starring Henry Winkler, Alicia Silverstone and Cheyenne Jackson. While some of the dialogue of the high school kids seems somewhat trite to this older listener, I defer to my juniors as to its authenticity. The play runs only 75 minutes without intermission and might have benefitted from a somewhat longer length and fuller explication of the various relationships.
The play is helmed by veteran director, producer and actor Edward Edwards. The rapid-fire overlapping dialog by the seven actors is executed flawlessly, reflecting Edwards’ directorial patience and skill. The single set designed by Erin Walley does full justice to the play, exhibiting Larry’s classroom, the school library and Steve’s office. Lighting, costume and sound designs are by Mike Reilly, Allison Dillard and Greg Chun, respectively. The producers are Gene Franklin Smith and Rick D. Wasserman. Smith is the Malibu Playhouse’s new artistic director and “The Dream of the Burning Boy” is an auspicious beginning of his tenure and of the Playhouse’s current season.