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A CurtainUp Review
Burning Blue
Up, up the long delirious burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never Lark or even Eagle flew

--- from "High Flight" the poem by John Gillespie Magee, Jr. known as the aviators' poem and D.M.W. Greer's inspiration for his title.
Mike Doyle &  Chad Lowe
Mike Doyle & Chad Lowe (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
In writing his first play, D.M.W.Greer followed the time-honored advice, "write about what you know." As a former naval pilot he had first-hand knowledge of the witch-hunting tactics used to intimidate and oust homosexual service members.

Though that autobiographical first effort, Burning Blue, has enjoyed a number of productions, beginning with its 1995 premiere at the London's fringe's King's Head, it has taken seven years for it to make its New York debut. The intervening years and the anemic Don't Ask, Don't Tell response to the gays in the military issue have unfortunately not lessened the possibility for an over-zealous investigator like Greer's Javert-like Special Agent Cokely (P. J. Brown) to fan the sparks from an anonymous phone call into blazing fire in which to crucify a dedicated naval officer following in the footsteps of his admiral father. Just as unfortunately, however, the play's immediacy has been watered down by concerns about terrorism and war which would (at least one hopes so) prevent even zealots like Agent Cokely from wasting the Navy's resources on chasing after rumors.

Structured as a thriller-detective story, Burning Blue is eminently watchable, albeit with flaws that include an underdeveloped thematic thread and excessive second act soul searching by Lt. Dan Lynch (Mike Doyle), the "witch" on Agent Cokely's stake.

John Hickock, who also directed the London West End and Los Angeles productions, skillfully steers the nine-member cast through the mounting tensions and elicits robust performances from all. In the interest of truth in advertising, it should be noted that the Oliviers touted in the advance publicity for the Hitchcock helmed London production were for design and lighting not best play.

The story moves into high gear with an anonymous call implicating Lt. Lynch in "a criminal act." This quickly detours the focus of Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) examination of a fatal accident between three F/A-18 jets into a chase with painful repercussions. Besides threatening to scuttle young Doyle's career, that "crime" (dancing in a gay nightclub during shore leave) tests his and his three closest flying buddies' concepts of love, friendship and honor. It also triggers some deep-seated prejudices and forces Cokely's partner, Agent Jones (Jerome Preston Bates), to confront the true meaning of his role as the "bad cop" in this witch-hunt.

The most high profile member of the cast, Chad Lowe, acquits himself well as Lt. Will Stephenson, also an admiral's son and Lynch's long-time friend. He seems to see no irony in his sense of betrayal by Lynch's coming out of the closet when he has himself been in denial about the much more dangerous secret of his flawed vision. (His extended cover-up is a bit hard to believe. Aren't participants in an astronaut program checked constantly?).

Mike Doyle (in an interesting switch from his homophic role in the TV show OZ) and Matthew Del Negro (familiar to Sopranos watchers) do their best not to over- sentimentalize the firm-of-jaw, soft of heart lovers who can no longer hide behind a "beard" (Susan Porro, in a neat touch of double casting plays both Dan's long suffering girl friend and Matt's homophobic wife).

The fourth and most endearing of the pilots is an easy-going hillbilly, Lt. Jr. Grade Charlie Trumbo (played with zestful humor by Bill Dawes). Charlie turns out to be the only truly free and broad-minded spirit on stage and the only one with reason to ask Agent Cokely to clarify the adjective "small" in his regularly posed Kafkaesque question: "Have you ever engaged in, desired to engage in or do you intend to engage in sex with people of other nationalities, members of the Communist party. . . or small animals?"

Sherri Parker Lee
Sherri Parker Lee
(Photo: David Morgan)
P.J. Brown's Cokely typifies the danger of an obsessive, mean-spirited personality in a position of power. Jerome Preston Bates is the play's almost hero whose refusal to continue playing the bad cop to Cokely's mock good cop comes from the realization that if bashing gays is good for the country then the same applies to treating every African-Americans as " a crack-smokin', car-jackin' nigger." Sherri Parker Lee who was originally scheduled for the smaller double role now played by Susan Porro, has stepped into the part of Stephenson's wife Susan with aplomb. She is particularly impressive in two completely wordless scenes. Essentially, though, this is a guys play and the female roles are peripheral.

Agent Jones' too-late heroics raise the question about a hero in spirit who hovers over this play, the lawyer Atticus Finch in Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Will and Susan's son and Dan's godson bear his name and at a gathering in their apartment, Matt toasts baby Atticus, also known as Attie, with "Like his namesake, may he be an inspiration to us all!" This seems a rather slight buildup to the scene when Susan argues for Will to stand and be counted on behalf of his friend by reminding him how he admired this defender of an innocent man back in their high school days. Will's abrupt dismissal of Finch as "an idealist, a fictious hero in a sentimental novel" and suggestion for "a reality check" leaves us hoping that his own reality check that will restore Atticus as a worthy role model for Will as an officer, friend and father.

Set designer (also costume designer) Beowolf Boritt has provided a parachute curtain that dramatically collapses into the real thing for the opening prologue in which Will's bad eyesight causes an accident that almost costs him his wings. The rest of the set is more efficient than dramatic and some really striking couch accessories might have made Agent Cokely's comments on the Stephenson decor less of an imagination stretch.

While Burning Blue has much in common with Take Me Out (Our Review), Richard Greenberg's gay-themed ode to baseball, it lacks Greenberg's richness of language, a comparison that begs a final caveat for those squeamish about nudity: Burning Blue contains both the rear and full frontal variety.

Readers may want to read Les Gutman's review of another play about gays in the services, Another American: Asking and Telling

by D.M. W. Greer
Directed by John Hickok
Cast (in alphabetical order): Jerome Preston Bates (Special Agent Jones), P.J. Brown (Special Agent Cokely) , Bill Dawes (Lt. j.g. CharlieTrumbo), Matthew Del Negro (Lt. Matthew Blackwood) , Mike Doyle e (Lt. Dan Lynch), Sherri Parker Lee (Susan Stephenson),Chad Lowe ( Lt. Will Stephensen), Susan Porro (Nancy Spencer & Tammi Blackwood).
Running Time: 2 hours and 25 minutes, includes one 15-minute intermission
Samuel Beckett Theatre, 410 W. 2nd St. (9th/10th Aves) 212-279-4200 10/01/02-12/15/02; opening 10/16/02.Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 PM, matinees Saturdays at 2 PM and Sundays at 5 PM.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 10/11 press preview
Poor general reviews brought an early closing: 11/03/02
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