Provocative questions are raised in Marlane Meyer’s new “Why Things Burn,” but the haze that settles over their deliberation seems less a matter of ambiguity than authorial confusion. A vivid setup and some strong individual scenes leave one dismayed at the play’s lack of focus.
The terse opener has glowering Lester (Jarion Monroe) airing fascistic views on “the problem of human evil” to son and protege Lon (Del Sherman). They’re off to yet another “hunting” meet (“It’s like the Klan, but they call it the Club”) — if they can slip past Desiree’s (Kathleen Cramer) booze-slurred but incisive snipes, that is.
A ramrod-stiff acolyte nonetheless tweaked by doubt, Lon feels the tug of his mother’s weary humanism. It’s no great surprise, then, when the lights rise next on Lester standing over his wife’s corpse.
For convoluted reasons, Lon goes underground in L.A., staying with relatives. The camp followers we see are a pathetic lot, veterans of abuse and broken homes. Muscle-bound jailbird Nelson (F. Scott Collins), gay urchin Wendell (Sean San Jose Blackman) and girltoy Sunny (Cintra Wilson) are attracted to Lon’s charisma as something both parental and implicitly sexual. If they respond less to his mission of racial purity, we suspect Lon’s not so firm on the concept, either. Cutting deep, Sunny tells him, “You sound just like Scientology.”
Meyer (“Kingfish,””The Geography of Luck”) places her characters in the thick of hot issues but can’t seem to decide where to point the motivational blame. It’s no accident that two of the three women, all plain-talking advocates of love vs. aggression, end up dead. But the abrupt finale suggests, rather lamely, that Lon’s actions can be laid solely to daddy-dearest loathing.
Director Roberta Levitow’s smartly paced and designed premiere realizes sharp moments without locating an internal thread. The scenes with naive Aunt Velma (also played by Cramer) and surly couch potato Uncle Adam (Merle Kessler) satirize middle-class angst, then veer toward lofty discussion of man’s spiritual “duality.”
Such shifts of tone and character occur all too often. Meyer seems to have hitched some simple, generalized ideas — the title’s answer is “because people lose hope”– onto a scenario that overwhelms them.
Amid generally fine performances, Sherman lends Lon fearsome yet sympathetic intelligence. It’s not his fault that Lon remains as vaguely imagined as Meyer’s thesis.
J.A. Deane’s rock-ambient sound design does much to bind the evening’s wayward progress.