It’s not a good sign when you can’t tell if a play’s main characters have ended up alive or dead. But as I walked out of The Burnt Part Boys, the sometimes lovely, most often ineffective and occasionally inscrutable bluegrass musical about fatherless kids in a 1960s coal-mining town, which opened last night at Playwrights Horizons (in a coproduction with the Vineyard Theatre), my companion-a serious theatergoer-and I couldn’t decide if we thought the final scene was a fantasy, those kids’ dream of connection and salvation finally achieved after death; or reality, the kids’ actual salvation from a near-death experience.
This is a dramaturgical and directorial problem.
Mariana Elder’s play is set in a West Virginia town called Pickaway,10 years after a mining accident that killed 12 men. The part of the mine that collapsed and burned has been closed since, and the play’s center, 14-year-old Pete (Al Calderone), whose father died in the collapse, views the shuttered mine as hallowed land. When the company announces it’s reopening the so-called Burnt Part, Pete-a sucker for westerns who’s prone to prophetic visitations from Sam Houston and Davy Crockett (both Michael Park)-sets off with his best friend and some TNT stolen from the toolkit of his older brother, already and reluctantly on a path to success as a miner, to ensure the Burnt Part will never be disturbed.
There are interesting and relevant ideas here: how miners (and, say, oil-rig workers) are exploited and then forgotten by the faceless companies that employ them; how grief-stricken survivors can become impediments to progress on sites of tragedies; how some fetishize history while others feel trapped by it.
But instead The Burnt Part Boys becomes a fairly straightforward coming-of-age quest story-young protagonist ventures forth with awkward-friend sidekick; older brother and loutish friend pursue; all learn something about themselves, and about family, in the process. It’s Stand By Me, but with inferior dialogue. Only at the end, when Pete succeeds in blowing up the mine’s entrance, and the group gets caught in the rubble and confronts their fears and hopes and (jointly hallucinated) fathers, does the play become truly interesting. It’s also when it’s the most confusing.
The bluegrass-pop score, by Chris Miller, is excellent: tuneful, catchy and frequently moving. (The lyrics are by Nathan Tysen.) In a strong ensemble, Charlie Brady gives the standout performance as big brother Jake; he’s convincingly torn between obligation and aspiration, dedicated to his family and heritage but hoping for something more than endless days inside a mountain. He also sings beautifully, as does Mr. Calderone as Pete. And director Joe Calarco creates a handful of beautiful stage pictures, starting with the first moment, the lost miners at work, their head-lamps shining out from the dark stage.
But Mr. Calarco doesn’t succeed in giving the book sufficient shape to truly work. The interesting parts of Burnt Part don’t make sense, and the parts that make sense are trite.
THE ELABORATE ENTRANCE of Chad Deity, which opened last week at the Second Stage Theatre, is a very different kind of celebration of the working man. It’s a high-energy, highly theatrical comedy set in the energetic and theatrical world of professional wrestling. It’s loud and witty and aggressive, but it’s also a sweet and moving story of a Joe Sixpack-granted one who works in tights and a mask-who keeps getting clothes-lined by the self-interested self-promoters who run his WWE-like employer, called THE Wrestling.
The play is narrated by a journeyman wrestler named Macedonio Guerra (Desmin Borges)-“the Mace”-a Bronx Puerto Rican who appreciates the fine art of scripted grappling. He had used wrestling to lift himself out of poverty; he’s a dedicated THE employee who’s happy to lose to the baby-faced champ, the All-American Chad Deity (Terence Archie), who always enters the ring elaborately.