Tuesday, January 31, 2023

The Art of Burning: The Dilemma of Ideas

Adrianne Krstansky (far left), Michael Kaye, and Rom Barkhordar (far right) in The Art of Burning. (Photo: T Charles Erickson)

Kate Snodgrass’s play The Art of Burning, in production by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Calderwood Pavilion, opens with an exchange between Patricia (Adrianne Krstansky), an artist who is in the midst of a divorce, and Mark (Michael Kaye), who seems to be acting unofficially on behalf of both her and her husband Jason (Rom Barkhordar). I never figured out that part, but the dialogue is tart and witty. Snodgrass has a gift for high-comic repartee and she excels at two-character scenes. The best one is between Mark and his wife Charlene (Laura Latreille), Patricia’s best friend, who has been cheating on him. He’s found out about the affair, she’s put an end to it, and he’s struggling to believe her claim that it won’t happen again. It’s as good a piece of dramatic writing as I’ve heard in the last several years.

I found the play totally engaging, and considering that most new plays seem to be devoid of ideas, I was grateful that Snodgrass had come up with so many. The Art of Burning is mostly about marriage – on the one hand about anger arising out of jealousy and betrayal (Patricia and Jason), and on the other hand about the role of sexual desire in the attempt of a couple whose marriage has been sorely tested to move past the infidelity that almost tore them apart (Mark and Charlene). But there’s still more. Snodgrass also takes on the anxieties of the current generation of teenagers and their parents’ struggles to simultaneously protect them and leave them alone. We meet Patricia and Mark’s fifteen-year-old daughter Beth (Clio Contogenis), whose terror over the state of the planet and fragility in the face of the insensitivity of the boys she wants to like her have practically made her a basket case. The only other character, Katya (Vivia Font), is the family lawyer (ironically) for whom Mark left Patricia. Katya wants to be a real stepmother to Beth, even though at the moment she and Mark are living apart. (To add more confusion to the scenario, she has just discovered that she’s carrying Mark’s baby.) Katya has offered Beth a summer job, which exasperates Patricia, who feels that she is trying to appropriate her daughter. Her outrage exacerbates her simmering fury over Mark’s abandoning her for another woman. When she and Charlene attend a performance of Medea, she claims that the titular character’s homicidal response to classical Jason’s treatment of his loyal wife suddenly makes complete sense to her.

It turns out that the play is packed with too many ideas; they begin to collide and The Art of Burning becomes incoherent. None of the material focused on Beth works, though the big mother-daughter scene, where she reports on a nightmarish first date that has made her feel she never wants to go on another one, is compelling, and there are moments when you think that it might work with sharper focus and less hysteria. It’s hard to tell how much of the problem here is in the miscasting of Contogenis, who seems at least a decade too old to play the teenage daughter – just as it’s hard to tell whether the biggest problem with the Jason scenes is that Snodgrass can’t resist making him an asshole or that Kaye’s performance is simply flat. One of the sequences that doesn’t come off is a flashback to the night Patricia and Mark met, at a gallery show where he enthused over a painting without realizing he was talking to the person who’d made it. Mark’s analysis of the painting is somehow both dopey and pretentious; Snodgrass has drawn Patricia as way too canny to be so flattered by his praise that she doesn’t recognize what nonsense he’s spouting. And though the references to Medea (and the less obvious ones to A Doll’s House) are fun, you stop believing in the psychological underpinnings of the play when Patricia begins to argue on behalf of Medea’s choice to murder her children not just to avenge herself against Jason but also because she thinks she’s saving them. (The revelation at the end of this section is supposed to make sense of this but I didn’t think it succeeded.) Still, I enjoyed the play and Melia Bensussen’s intelligent production, in which Krstansky, Font, Latreille and especially Kaye excel.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.     

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