There’s an undeniable darkness at the heart of Alex DeFazio’s new play, 2 Burn, produced by Elixir Productions Theatre Company for this year’s NY Fringe Festival at The Living Theatre. And the darkness in a large measure resides in the character of Paul, an earnest college educator, as played by Jody P. Person, one of the show’s co-directors along with Jennifer Joyce. The darkness is all the more remarkable for being manifest in a character who seems pointedly to reject such categorization, as he subjects all experiences to the un-nuanced spotlight of his intellect, opining ultimately that there is no such thing as Love. Love is merely a social construct deployed by people for their own ends, Paul declares, and not in a tone that is hard-bitten or love-weary. Rather in an earnest and instructive manner, careful that his listeners do not fall into the folly of believing in such an illusion. Person’s Paul exudes an openness, an unblinking wholesomeness, apparently devoid of shadow. He’s kind of like a nihilistic Julie Andrews. Which is why we settle back and read him as a sort of chump, heading for a classic theatrical pratfall. Of course he’s going to fall in love. And love is going to rip him a new one.
The play wastes no time in setting up the scenario, ushering in Manny, a seductive if slight, failing student who appears to have handpicked the readably gay Paul to rescue him; and to teach him ‘other things’ besides. Manny has several large “do not engage” signs flashing about him, and we can only wonder at Paul’s naivete in overlooking them and rising to Manny’s sexualized bait. There’s plenty of shadow clinging to Manny and only a chump would take him at his word. Paul’s friend, Maureen, a precariously positioned black, lesbian adjunct professor at the college, attempting to teach Manny about poetry, sees what is going on and tries to warn Paul off. Will Paul listen? It’s possible that some hangover demons from Paul’s last relationship are propelling him onward, but armed with the belief in his own rationality, and a sense of mission, he proceeds, being pulled deeper and deeper into the deceits and evasions Manny lives by. Out pops Sarah, a figure from Manny’s past, undeniable proof of his duplicity and manipulation. Everything begins to stink and Paul finds himself on the brink of his own professional and personal destruction, as fate and plot would fittingly dictate. But in the final scene’s unsuspected revelation, a hidden darkness wells up out of Paul and a sudden reversal occurs, casting a much creepier light on the proceedings, and swapping the roles of predator and prey. Was Paul really blind all along, or was he just indifferent, certain in the knowledge that he was ultimately holding an ace up his sleeve, the ace of spades no less?
It’s a tale alright, though it is perhaps a little over long in the telling. It’s all very well casting Paul as the frontal-lobe-loaded rationalist, but do we have to hear so much of his academic name-dropping, or his turgid intellectualizations? The specters of homophobia and HIV/AIDS are invoked and contribute to the complexity of the story, but seem merely serviceable dramatic tropes played to up the ante. The dialogue sometimes feels over-extended and over-heated, which brings us to another problem with the physical aspects of this production. There just is not enough heat. It would be a trial for anyone to discover the erotic side of Person’s Paul, wide-eyed and reasonable as he is, but Patrick Martin’s troubled, waif-ish Manny cannot convincingly do it. Much depends in the play on the contact between these two, but there is, alas, no chemistry. The problem is compounded by the fact that the staging seems somewhat adrift in the expansive performance space of the venue, diffusing any attempt at generating atmosphere. The sound effects reverberate from somewhere well off stage and their unevenness and surprising volume is distorting. The production struggles to emotionally and physically fill the space. Given these setbacks, it is left to the actors to rescue what they can. Deena Jiles in the thankless role of Maureen, and Michelle Wood as a potentially fatale Sarah, rise gracefully to the moment.
LaFazio has produced a serious and deep-delving piece of drama here, and is to be applauded for that much. Nevertheless, it is profoundly difficult to establish an erotic atmosphere on any stage, be it a platform or a basement, and while one can sit through the present production willing the best for all concerned, sadly this 2 Burn just does not spark.
Elixir Productions Theatre Company
Writer: Alex DeFazio
Director: Jennifer Joyce & Jody P. Person