'Burn This' sears and sizzles - Project SEE Theatre closes season by doing justice to another Lanford Wilson play

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On the heels of the hit production The Hot l Baltimore, Project SEE Theatre finishes its inaugural season with Burn This, another tribute to Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lanford Wilson, who died last year. Both feature Wilson's penchant for grittily poetic language and fascinatingly flawed and eccentric characters, but there is a major difference: scale. The Hot l Baltimore requires an enormous cast, but Burn This is an intimate affair, yet somehow it is more epic.

It opens with grief and anger. A New York dancer and choreographer, Anna (Ellie Clark) is reeling from the loss of her dance partner and roommate, Robbie. Fresh from attending Robbie's funeral in Houston, Anna is heartbroken that Robbie's family turned a blind eye to his homosexuality and dance career.

She is joined in grief by another roommate, Larry (Spencer Christensen), a gay advertising exec who has a penchant for impromptu opera re-enactments and coy one-liners. Anna's long-time lover, Burton (Peter Stone), a rich kid-turned-successful screenwriter, is the safe, sensible romantic option.

"When are you going to marry that man and buy things?" Larry quips.

Then Robbie's older brother, Pale (Evan Bergman), enters the picture, and everything changes.

Bergman makes a jarring, memorable and highly entertaining entrance as the frantic, coked-up, hyper-masculine restaurant manager. Frankly, he seems like a total jerk. Anna thinks so, too, but there is something captivating about the gems of truth and guttural honesty in his coarse diatribes. Pale's tough veneer begins to crack, and it becomes obvious he is reeling from the death of his brother. In a heart-wrenchingly tender and honest scene, the duo let their guards down, and the potency of their shared grief leads them to the bedroom.

Bergman and Clark have terrific chemistry (they are a couple off the stage as well). But the most impressive aspect of their roles is a palpable sense of fear and confusion about their characters' feelings. If Burton is a safe choice, Pale is downright dangerous. Neither Anna nor Pale was expecting the emotional gut-punch of their attraction, which is raw and mysterious.

Tellingly, this lights a fire under Anna's creativity, and her dance career blossoms and becomes a way for Wilson to comment on various kinds of creative processes. Anna is dancing from the heart and gut, whereas Burton writes screenplays flippantly, cynically insisting, "There are no good movies."

Berman and Clark scorch the stage with their characters' magnetic connection, but Christensen cools things down with his endearing, flamboyant comic relief. His character brings more than laughs, however. His loneliness and longing permeate his charming persona, underscoring that there is too much distance among all of the characters, sort of like the New York loft they inhabit.

Christensen and Stone are particularly compelling in a scene in which their characters accidentally push each other's buttons and reveal the offbeat sexual tension simmering between them.

One of the most satisfying aspects of Wilson's plays is that it's difficult to predict the ending. Unlike those in many conventional plays, the characters of Wilson's world might not even know what they want or might change their motives a few times. That makes the final resolutions even more intriguing.

Candace Chaney is a Lexington writer.