Playwright Ginger Lazarus writes with an eye trained on burning contemporary issues. This time out she visits whistle blowing and military injustice. You can’t watch the nightly news without hearing references to information leaks from Assange or Manning or Snowden… and just as often you hear horrifying stories about high rates of suicide among returning vets… or the culture of violence in the military, especially against women. Congress, if it gets its act together about the fiscal cliff, has vowed to hold hearings about the prevalence of rape in the military and the commanders who would rather punish the victims and not the perpetrators.
What makes BURNING (at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre through Oct. 20th) unique is what Lazarus hangs her “burning” issues on, namely Rostand’s classic tale of unrequited, sublimated, substituted love, Cyrano de Bergerac. The present day “Cy” (Mal Malme), having been booted out of the army for violating “don’t ask/don’t tell,” now runs a little café/general store near the base where she spars with the military, reporting misdeeds on her blog. As you might imagine, this really ticks off her former superiors.
It burns her that she had to give up a successful career. The other burning matter is the flame she carries for a waitress/painter (Jessica Webb) who has just disclosed to the ex-sergeant that she has fallen for a young soldier (Ian Michaels). Before you can say “Mon Dieu,” the inarticulate fellow shows up at the café (David Miller’s clever, long stretch of a set) and begs Cy for help in wooing fair lady, just as he does in the original. Cy then substitutes her feelings for his in emails which create “the most human connection” Rose has ever felt.
Lazarus continues the parallels with Rostand’s story but she has an uphill battle to convince us that Rose isn’t hip enough to see what’s going on. Letters, we can accept, but the rest is difficult to swallow if we’re to believe what a smart, charismatic woman Cy tells us she is. (Loyalty-or the lack thereof becomes a problem, too, later on in a confrontation between the soldier and Cy.)
Lazarus has a lovely, humorous touch, even when the story becomes deadly serious. Director Steven Bogart and company handle the balance with aplomb. Lazarus gives a minor character (Zachary Clarence) a major dilemma when he is beaten up by gay-bashing soldiers. He has to decide whether or not to press charges or whether even to stay in town, making all the characters’ choices part of the whole.
The villain of the piece is Cy’s former executive officer, who has now become commandant of the base, partly because Cy publicized his predecessor’s indiscretions. Life imitated art in the matter of substitutions at the BPT when Alexander Cook stepped in for Steven Barkhimer, who was hospitalized hours earlier. Cook not only mastered the lines at a moment’s notice, he presented a fully rounded, fully frightening nemesis for Cy, a character we could hang Lazarus’ disturbing ending on.