Theater Review: 'The Art of Burning' Never Catches Fire

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Tuesday January 31, 2023

Adrianne Krstansky, Michael Kaye and Rom Barkhordar in "The Art of Burning"
Adrianne Krstansky, Michael Kaye and Rom Barkhordar in "The Art of Burning"  (Source:T Charles Erickson)

As Anton Chekhov famously instructed, you don't introduce a gun in the first act without making use of it in the third. That advice came to mind when watching "The Art of Burning," Kate Snodgrass' new play at the Huntington Theatre Company (In a co-production with the Hartford Stage), which opens with an artist, named Patricia (Adrianne Krstansky), praising the character of Medea. The previous evening she had seen a production of Euripedes' tragedy and empathizes with the vengeful character that murders her children to avenge Jason, her husband, who has left her for a younger woman. She says that Medea "saved her children." Adding, "She doesn't want to, but she has to. The world will make their lives miserable, and she doesn't want that. She loves them."

The conversation alarms Mark (Michael Kaye), a family friend and lawyer who is negotiating the contentious divorce between Patricia and the conveniently named Jason (Rom Barkhordar), which centers over the guardianship of their 16-year-old daughter Beth (Clio Contogenis). Given this context, Patricia's admission shades the drama to follow. What with a husband named Jason, why wouldn't it? Add that Patricia has been acting quite unhinged of late, burning her husband's antique desk in the backyard, which may have broken some local ordinances. And after Beth mysteriously disappears, should her admiration of Medea be a warning sign?

But what Snodgrass does over the 85 minutes is coyly play with the idea of Patricia becoming a latter-day Medea, especially after Beth does not answer the increasingly desperate phone calls from Jason when she goes missing. She even arrives at a mediation meeting wearing a T-shirt with red blotches over it. Is it paint or blood? Or is she simply (and maliciously) gaslighting Jason and Mark? Patricia is visibly angry because her husband has left her for a younger lawyer Katya (Vivia Font), just as in the Greek Jason leaves Medea for a young princess. Perhaps the big difference is that Patricia and Jason are well into middle-age and their daughter is a 16-year-old, woke Gen Z-er Beth; not the young children in "Medea."

Throughout the fleeting drama, Snodgrass piles cliché upon cliché in attempting to create a mystery about the whereabouts of Beth, making for a crowded drama, with issues of male toxicity, marriages in disarray, and a seemingly unhinged central character. The drama unfolds in a series of brief, confrontational scenes between the principals, mostly in pairs, that begin quietly before descending into angry confrontations. It plays at a brisk pace (efficiently directed by Melia Bensussen), though some of the continuity feels confusing, especially when a sentimental flashback is dropped to show Margaret and Jason at a less contentious moment.

Snodgrass awkwardly imposes her classical template into this contemporary drama, which led to a gay-gasping moment when Patricia, for no apparent reason than being incendiary, shouts that Jason would win the custody fight over her dead body, alluding to the absent Beth. To make the point, the stage blazes in red neon. An equally embarrassing moment occurs when Mark's wife, Charlene (Laura Latreille), expresses her frustration with their marriage in a largely comic confrontation in which she fakes an orgasm. Latreille performs it with aplomb, but shouldn't the tired bit of the middle-aged woman faking an orgasm be put to rest? And when Beth explains her social consciousness to the clueless Jason, the moment feels like an outtake from "Gossip Girl" in its obviousness. How about a teenager who isn't woke?

But these are points that perhaps a dramaturg should have worked out. "The Art of Burning" boasts a handsome production, with moveable panels encased in neon that often shade the action in various hues (the sleek design is by Luciana Stecconi, lighting by Aja M. Jackson, costumes by Kate Harmon). The performances are earnest enough, but there is little emotional connection with these characters and the cast seem to be running through the motions, largely because the characters are thin caricatures of identifiable bourgie types. The overall effect is like watching a product reel from a prestige Showtime series that would likely be canceled after the first season.

"The Art of Burning" continues through February 12, 2023 at the Virginia Wemberly Theatre, Calderwood/BCA, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA. For more information, visit the Huntington Theatre Company's website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].