Lanford Wilson's 1987 kitchen-sink epic is a difficult but lyrical warhorse often put up by youthful companies who don't realize how frequently it's presented in Southern California. Because of this and its length—over three hours—it had better be good. The program explains that this is an adjunct to Playhouse West's "ongoing acting classes," exclusively cast with current enrollees and directed by staff members or students. Although there are four worthy and ambitious performances, this incarnation of Burn This is also a full half-hour longer than usual. It has all the indulgences of a workshop scene: added repetitions, long and unnecessary pauses, and an occasionally mumbling pensiveness that sometimes neglects the audience completely. This would be forgivable—even prudent—in a class setting, but in presentational form for a public viewing, it is deadly.
Lance Delgado is miscast as the karate-teaching, fitness-minded Burton, but, aside from his habit of reducing many of his lines to a stage whisper, it's not hard to see that he has a future, as do all of these performers. The equally gifted Trip Hope's Larry relies too heavily on a loud singsongy gay stereotype and, during frequent periods stuck in a corner, listening as the others screw up their lives, tends to overreact to what's going on. Producer Andrea Helene, who co-directs with Susan Han, has a definite handle on Anna, the dancer who falls into an abusive relationship with her late roommate's mysterious and often volatile brother. She finds every nuance of her character's plight, and in moments of silence, extremely clear thoughts happen behind her eyes in abundance. Still, Helene is hampered by a frustrating lack of volume and a tendency to speed the beginning of her sentences and drop the last few words of each beneath an audible level. Even the single errant lock of hair, which keeps falling and covering her face at the wrong moment, becomes exasperating—as does her continuous effort to push it back into place.
Yet for all the masturbatory moments, there is one world-class, absolutely remarkable performance: John Hillard is mesmerizing and suitably scary as Pale. His emotional health flips as neatly as pancakes on a griddle. He turns his back on the audience, fearlessly acting in 360 degrees, making Pale's protectively tough bravado both real and somehow almost delicate from any angle. In a role with more traps than Minnesota in duck season, he avoids each one stealthily and with uncanny ease, slowly exposing a troubled and defensive guy hardened by life, hiding behind booze and a swaggering braggadocio. Initially frightening, by the end Hillard is heartbreakingly touching and becomes the soul of the play, just as Wilson intended him to.
The folks at Playhouse West must be doing something right, because these actors are definitely ready for prime time, but perhaps the training they receive is geared more to film work—not a bad idea in this town if one doesn't want to sell real estate by age 40. Nevertheless it's frustrating for any live audience to have to work this hard to break through the many introspective moments, usually spent on the obligatory classroom couch placed center stage. For everything this presentation has going for it, ultimately it's a case in which the fourth wall might just as well have been a wall after all.
"Burn This," presented by and at the Playhouse West Repertory Theatre, 10634 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Fri. 8 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 7 p.m. Jan. 10-Mar. 28. Free; donations accepted. (818) 971-7191.