Companies with black box theaters do the industry a great service by supporting and showcasing promising young talent. But despite past success with plays like “Tigers Be Still,” Roundabout Underground has labored for naught on “The Dream of the Burning Boy.” Sophomoric piece by Juilliard playwriting fellow and recent NYU grad David West Read purports to examine the impact on a suburban high school when a gifted student unexpectedly drops dead. But despite professional treatment, the grownups are implausible, the kids too smart for words, and the plot is preposterous.
Some aspects of Read’s melodramatic play do ring true. When a popular senior named Dane (Josh Caras) suddenly collapses and dies of a brain aneurism, school officials truck in grief counselors, hold assemblies, and otherwise fall all over themselves to persuade students to express their grief and shock. This encourages diva behavior from self-dramatizing kiddos like Dane’s girlfriend, Chelsea (Jessica Rothenberg), “the weeping bride,” as one teen cynically describes her.
The school administration’s choreographed mourning rituals also brings out the reasonable rage of Dane’s sister, Rachel (Alexandra Socha). Although Rachel’s anger is her only defining characteristic, Socha (“Spring Awakening”) turns in a perf that suggests deeper dimensions.
Regrettably, the topic of adolescent trauma doesn’t sufficiently engage the scribe, who gives less stage time to the students than to the grownups — if you can call them that.
Steve (Matt Dellapina), the juvenile guidance counselor who prolongs the students’ angst with his histrionic bereavement rituals, is a flat-out stereotype. Although drawn with more restraint by Kristie Dale Sanders, Dane’s mother, Andrea, is another one-note character, her theme note being heaping blame on Larry (Reed Birney), the English teacher who was Dane’s (unacknowledged) father.
Read really has it out for poor Larry (a total worm in Birney’s shuffling, mumbling perf), who has to stand still and take scribe’s below-the-belt blows for being the ultimate absent dad. Even under a stronger directorial hand than Evan Cabnet’s, the extent of Larry’s cowardice would be less than persuasive.
Before they strike Lee Savage’s functional classroom set, maybe everyone could sit down and go back to the books on this one.