Asylum Theatre's staging of Lanford Wilson's Burn This is far more intimate than the Tony-nominated Broadway revival starring Adam Driver (the current Star Wars series, Girls) and Keri Russell (The Americans, Waitress). At most, about two dozen patrons would pack the house, which means there's little separating you from the action. And depending on where you sit, you might be at the center of this occasionally volatile production with actors who skillfully nail the hardened air of bubble-dwelling New Yorkers all while reminding us that grief is messy and unpredictable.
Set in the late 1980s, Burn This examines how four people's lives are affected by gay deaths during a more closeted chapter of history, before "burying your gays" was a worn trope. The drama begins shortly after a dancer named Robbie dies in a boating accident with his boyfriend, setting up an otherwise unlikely meeting between his semi-estranged brother, Pale (Heath Koerschgen), and his roommates, Anna (Briana Ratterman) and Larry (Michael J. Teufel).
Larry is the household's Head Bitch in Charge; he has a job in marketing, laser-sharp wit, and the ability to hold your gaze with a lengthy femme fatale-style monologue. Anna, Robbie's former dance partner, has a harder time with his loss, and isn't comforted by her wealthy writer boyfriend, Burton (Jason Maniccia), or her work on the choreography she's about to debut. Larry and Burton nearly assault you with their literary and cinematic tastes, as an East Coast academic might, but Anna is too bereaved to notice them, or much of anything else. After meeting Robbie's family for the first time, she's traumatized that she didn't know him as well as she thought. There's also an incident with dying butterflies, but it's best to hear that from Anna.
Things come to a head when Pale shows up at Anna and Larry's apartment a month after the funeral. He's drunk, high and ready to get his brother's things. Pale hurls homophobic slurs at Larry without hesitation in what sounds like an authentic Jersey accent, and makes advances on Anna with the grace of a grief-drunk moose. When he complains about heart pains, Pale could be talking about the physiological effect of the mix of coke and booze he's ingested, or the loss of his brother, or his anxiety about learning that Robbie was gay.
As the months pass, Anna makes progress on her dance piece as well as moving on from Robbie. But Pale's unannounced returns to her home bring her back to square one. The trajectories of the characters ultimately come as little shock, but it's Larry and Burton's exchange near the end, just before Anna's Pale-inspired choreography debuted, that will take the audience by surprise. Burton's acceptance of his girlfriend's choices force Larry to examine his increasingly joyless life in a way that isn't immediately connected to Robbie's death, yet at the same time it wouldn't have happened otherwise.
Burn This is concerned with grief and its various manifestations: Pale's powerful and unrefined anguish; Anna's blending of sorrow and sexual attraction; Burton's move toward acceptance, grief's final stage. It's a reminder that the emotion will find us when and where it wants, interrupting everything. Sadness is difficult to sustain onstage, and neither Ratterman nor Koerschgen veer melodramatic when portraying Anna and Pale's mourning. There's weeping, rage, the search for meaning, and fucking the pain away, but no overexaggeration.
By the end, the audience is left to question who is allowed to recover from loss and who seems destined to be indefinitely devastated by it. The script may have some dialogue that feels a bit dated, but the chauvinists and closed-off communities in the play still exist, so we're not that far removed from the era that spawned it. Burn This is complex, and at times frustrating, but Asylum's cast and crew put on a show well worth your time.
SEE IT: Burn This is at Shoebox Theatre, 2110 SE 10th Ave., asylumpdx.org. 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday, 2 pm Sunday, through Dec. 15. $25.