The Burnt Part Boys
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 21, 2010
This season, Playwrights Horizons brought us This and Clybourne Park and Circle Mirror Transformation and the Vineyard Theatre gave us A Boy and His Soul and The Scottsboro Boys. So The Burnt Part Boys, which to my mind is one of the most resoundingly poor shows I've seen in quite some time, must be counted as some kind of anomalous miscalculation—indeed I left the theatre wondering how this piece ended up on the shared rosters of these two esteemed theatre companies.
With book by Mariana Elder, lyrics by Nathan Tysen, and music by Chris Miller, The Burnt Part Boys concerns a 14-year-old boy named Pete Twitchell whose father died in a mining accident when he was four. Pete's 18-year-old brother Jake is raising him now and, following in their Dad's footsteps, works as a coal miner himself. When Pete learns that the company intends to reopen the section of the mine where his father was buried alive, he is outraged: this is hallowed ground, he argues, the burial place for so many heroic miners. Somewhat illogically, he hatches a plan to blow up the mine so that it can never reopen (apparently the fact that he would also be blowing up the grave of his father hasn't factored into his decision).
The arc of The Burnt Part Boys follows Pete as he attempts to execute this scheme. He's accompanied by his best friend Dusty Rivers, a fat kid who plays the saw, and later by Frances, who ran away from home after a nasty school incident involving some scissors and now lives alone in the woods. As soon as Jake figures out what Pete is up to (for he stole the dynamite from Jake's locked toolbox), he and his friend Chet set off in pursuit of the children. I won't tell you how things turn out.
I will tell you that despite the authors' attempts to make Pete's idea seem noble—they've inserted dream sequences involving characters from Pete's favorite movie, The Alamo, intending to somehow equate that possibly heroic military/political event with a mining accident—never for one minute did the story make any sense to me.
The score suffers from a sameness throughout its 18 musical numbers, and though it generally sounds suitably folk-song-y under Vadim Feichtner's musical direction, it is only sporadically satisfyingly sung: to my mind only Andrew Durand as Chet fully "gets" the style of it (and, to be fair, the harmonizing of the chorus of dead miners is nice to hear). Al Calderon (Pete) and Noah Galvin (Dusty) are age-appropriate actors saddled with roles that, respectively, defy logic and hone badly to stereotype. Charlie Brady, as Jake, who sings occasionally about his ill-defined dreams, is markedly wooden.
Director Joe Calarco's work is far from his best. The action is not restricted to the stage, but rather moves into the audience, in the aisles and across the middle of the seating area, right in front of Row E. But there's never an organic reason for it; it just seems like every so often some of the actors are sent trooping off into one of these areas in an effort to make the staging environmental.
Most peculiar of all is the set, designed by Brian Prather, which consists of several ladders of different sizes that are rearranged throughout the evening to stand in for, but never manage to resemble or evoke, a variety of locales. To give just one example: there's a scene where Pete and Frances are supposed to be riding in a dinghy in a tempestuous river. This is depicted by having Calderon sit atop the smallest ladder, pushed across the stage by Molly Ranson, who plays Frances. It is not effective.
Playwrights Horizons and Vineyard Theatre will undoubtedly choose some good plays and some not-so-good plays for their next seasons. But I am still scratching my head over how they picked this one to collaborate on—and how whatever potential it may have contained went so badly astray in its development and production process.