Grief can bring up unexpected reactions in people, tapping into long-buried emotions, even masquerading as anger.
And so the aftermath of the death of a popular high school student reverberates among his classmates, teachers and family in David West Read's sensitive new play, "The Dream of the Burning Boy."
New York City's Roundabout Theatre Company is premiering the work, which opened Wednesday night, as part of Roundabout Underground, an initiative that presents the work of new playwrights. Fluidly directed by Evan Cabnet, the surprisingly humorous, well-paced production is comprised of numerous short, pithy scenes, all taking place within the confines of a high school.
Read has an ear for economical, real-sounding dialogue, creating believable and moving characters. We briefly meet the doomed student, Dane, sweetly portrayed by Josh Caras, in the first scene, having a meeting with his impatient English teacher, Larry Morrow (another perceptive, nuanced performance by Reed Birney.)
Dane's sudden death uncorks many emotions among his close circle. His high-strung girlfriend (Jessica Rothenberg) and best friend (Jake O'Connor) share a guilty secret. Longtime teacher Larry seems unaccountably depressed as well, as he'd taken an interest in Dane and helped him with his writing.
Dane's bright but misfit sister, Rachel, (a nicely prickly performance by Alexandra Socha) deals with her grief by angrily lashing out at everybody. Socha brims with hostility as Rachel confronts people like a small pitbull, rejecting comforting overtures. Deliberately snide and sarcastic, she makes everyone uneasy with her anger.
When Rachel rudely confronts Mr. Morrow about his frequent meetings with her brother, even threatening to blackmail him, a surprising secret is revealed that sheds light on Larry's lonely personal life and his depressed reaction to Dane's death. Larry's regret intensifies after a visit from Dane's mother (Kristie Dale Sanders.)
As Larry begins acknowledging missed opportunities in his life, three-time Obie Award-winner Birney conveys great emotion in subtle ways, with just a blink or slump of his shoulders.
Matt Dellapina provides welcome comic relief as Steve, an earnest, persistent, slightly puppyish young guidance counselor. Steve pesters Larry to talk with him, even though Larry derides Steve's sometimes-clumsy efforts to get everybody to "talk about how they feel."
Lee Savage's efficient set design and the fluorescent lighting effect create a slightly stifling high school atmosphere. Playwright Read doesn't wrap things up neatly, but provides hints of hopeful ways forward for some of these characters. "The Dream of the Burning Boy" is performing in the small Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre through May 8.