There’s nothing wrong with “Burning Blue” that the inevitable movie version won’t put right, and perhaps the kindest thing to say at the moment is that the play whets one’s appetite to see the same material better developed on screen. Is first-time American writer David Greer a natural dramatist? Not if one is looking for a fresh voice and a flair for language, neither one of which is in evidence here.
What Greer demonstrates in spades is an instinct for a good story and a genuine narrative command. “Burning Blue” is hardly great drama, but on its own terms, it grips — which, especially for movie audiences, may be more than enough.
The play has taken off like a rocket since it arrived, relatively unheralded, at the King’s Head Theater in Islington in the spring, attracting the likes of producer Robert Fox and designers John Napier and David Hersey as it made its way to the West End. Whether it would have a comparable effect in Greer’s home city, New York, remains to be seen: After Tony Kushner, Terrence McNally and Nicky Silver, among many others, Greer’s handling of gay issues may look rather more quaint or even naive than it does in London, where the play seems to push buttons of repression in an English public that are more difficult to activate Stateside.
At its core, “Burning Blue” is a far more old-fashioned play than, say, Lillian Hellman’s “The Children’s Hour,” revived in London last year — another play about homosexual intrigue and personal betrayal in an environment (in Hellman’s case, a girl’s school; inGreer’s, the military) that forbids it.
The arc of the drama suggests a gay “A Few Good Men,” or, perhaps, “Top Gun” unzipped. Two navy aviators, Lt. Dan Lynch (Antony Edridge) and Lt. Matt Blackwood (Robert Bogue), are glimpsed one night in a gay disco in Hong Kong, which prompts a witch hunt led by sneering Special Agent Cokely (Tim Woodward, in what has to be the Jack Nicholson part).
While Cokely and sidekick Jones (Tony Armatrading) carry on their investigation, Dan and Matt move away from and toward one another, watched with varying degrees of awareness by buddies, and fellow fighter pilots “Boner” (Martin McDougall) and Will (Ian FitzGibbon), and by an assortment of wives and girlfriends, one of whom, the “shebitch from Selma,” is revealed to be a bigot of Cokely-esque dimensions. An unexpected tragedy forces a showdown not between Matt and Dan but between Dan and Will, whose sense of emotional exclusion and distress is what lingers most once the curtain falls.
Greer’s narrative — much of it derived from his own experience and observation as a third-generation military man — could not, of course, be more timely, with gays-in-the-military issues making headlines on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s a particular shame, then, that the writing isn’t more sophisticated, especially since the elegant confines of the Haymarket serve to expose the clunkier passages. When not lapsing into cliche — Dan’s “I-close-my-eyes-and-all-I-see-is-you” speech — Greer strains toward a poetry (“the fog’s rolling in again; I wish it wouldn’t cover the moon”) so perfunctory that it would be better cut.
The approach to characterization leaves a lot to be desired: How do we know Matt, the so-called “iron man,” is gay? Because he’s a composer, i.e. a Sensitive Artist, who appears in an act two dream sequence to haunt a sleepless Dan by conducting one of his compositions. (One half expects Matt to deliver a soliloquy extolling the color pink.) Nor can the decision to name a baby Atticus be anything but portentous — as, indeed, it proves to be once the explanatory 11th-hour sermon arrives about the child’s namesake, Atticus Finch from “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
John Hickok’s production cannot surmount such corny interludes, despite Napier’s slick gray-blue, multipurpose design (beautifully lit by Hersey), any more than Woodward can make a real character of Cokely’s ferocious aggressor.
The four male leads are all likable, especially McDougall’s farm boy “Boner,” whose tales of past escapades with a pig show Greer’s real gift for easy colloquial banter. FitzGibbon and Edridge create tension between them even when the script lets them down, as it does with the psychologically absurd final line suggesting that “we all start over.”