Dallas — Not a mystery but mysterious nonetheless, Why Things Burn directed by Van Quattro and written by Ric Krause exists onstage at the Margo Jones Theatre but inhabits a more ethereal netherworld that resists containment in words.
As far as freak show, the characters leak forth from a hemorrhaging second-rate circus into a Hollywood of the time when the second Great War went from hot to cold. Playwright Krause looses his band of the disbanded into the wash of creeping communist unease.
Lighter than a Matt Posey show (shorter too), it’s cut from the same cloth of strong performances of characters who exist on the fringes. It’s life as illustrated from the edges. The narrator asserts that it’s somewhere between a freak show and a torch song—just the kind of description that sums up everything perfectly without saying anything specific.
As far as torch song, everyone carries one for someone or something. The trick rider, Vera (Nikki Cloer), has recently left the fire-eater, Albert (Elias Taylorson) for the strong man Ray (Danny O’Connor). That triangle resembles enough the requirements for a blaze: fuel, air and spark, but Krause will pour accelerant onto the pyre.
Whether the circumstance of the circus’ demise or the siren song of screen town, things heat up. The runaway youth/simpleton Fritz (Charles Wallace) makes for a perfect witness to these characters’ restless yearning with his simple, yet penetrating questions.
Krause is casual with his love triangle. He seems as preoccupied as the characters that he writes, infusing their struggles with self-reflective self-examination. It may weaken the tension of the plot but it offers the actors some meaty monologues and director Van Quattro fans these flickers into some memorable moments.
Cloer somehow maintains Vera’s wistful purity even as she sinks into her steamy pursuit for fame. Cindee Mayfield as the casting agent, Liz, is ready to catch Vera’s fall and, as such, represents the same failings only at the other end of age.
O’Connor creates a man, Ray, strong not only of muscle but also heart. His gain of Vera, though temporary, spells loss for Albert. These two take it hard but deal differently. Taylorson whips Albert’s obsession into mesmerizing intensity, but Albert has bigger fish to fry.
Though the title is Why Things Burn, it would be more accurately phrased, “Why do we burn?” The operative word each character seems to apply is “Why.”
Don’t come looking for answers.
When this hourlong one-act is over, bothered and bewildered you’ll be; but because of the strong performances, bewitched, as well.