Monday, March 28, 2011

The Dream of the Burning Boy

If you've seen this production of The Dream of the Burning Boy, you will understand that my review could be adequately summed up in two words: REED. BIRNEY.

To say this is Birney's show is a gross understatement. His stunningly real performances can save otherwise flawed scripts--as in the good but not quite excellent Tigers Be Still--but there is no need for rescue here. In Burning Boy, David West Read has given us one of my favorite scripts in years, and my favorite of Roundabout's exciting Underground series for new works by emerging artists (granted, I missed The Language of Trees and Ordinary Days). With nary a false note, the script easily surpasses the delightful Speech & Debate and Tigers, and I can't wait to see what is next from this young playwright.

Combined with Birney's masterful delivery, the power of this show about the aftershocks of the sudden death of a student is stunning, heartbreaking, undeniable. Even gaping in awe of Reed's pitch-perfect interpretation, I was impressed with the other strong actors. Kristie Dale Sanders brilliantly walks the line between devastation and restraint as the grieving mother. Matt Delapina as the hapless but well-meaning guidance counselor was charming, as was Jake O'Connor as the romantically stupid best friend. Jessica Rothenberg and Josh Caras were both very real in much less showy roles.

The only hiccup in this otherwise perfect production (and I don't bestow that compliment lightly)--which I probably would not have noticed in a less stellar production--was a few "acted" line readings from Alexandra Socha, who was otherwise excellent as the not-yet-grieving sister--a part seemingly written for Ellen Page. (I loved her as my first Wendla in Spring Awakening back when she was an understudy, but once she took over the role her portrayal turned a bit wooden and she began acting mostly by squinting, a trait thankfully almost completely missing here.)

This topic and these are roles could so easily have been overdone and stagy, but the restraint (and lightly sprinkled gallows humor) is admirable, and the show shockingly steered clear of false notes and genuinely surprised me (especially the writing for the best friend). Grief is so difficult to write, and I kept expecting to be disappointed but it never came.

I really cannot say enough good things about this show, which has been extended to May 15 so far and deserves a much longer run. Catch it while you can.


  1. See, I LOVED Reed Birney who is brilliant in absolutely everything, but the play left me a little cold. Socha and Jessica Rothenberg didn't convince me of much, and I couldn't quite find it in myself to embrace the "twist." That said, Birney should probably be in everything ever. Just a thought.

  2. After I wrote this, I went back and read your review and couldn't believe how differently we felt about the show. I'm not sure this accounts for all of it, but I have heard that the script went through big changes right up until opening. The twist is still there, of course, but that type of coincidence/device seems to me par for the course with off-Broadway shows.

    But, yes, Birney should be in everything ever. I am completely in love with his performance in this show. If I could marry his performance and wake up to it every morning, I would.