Once Bitten, Twice Shy

Burn This
Pillsbury House Theatre

Great American History Theatre

CONSIDER, FOR A MOMENT, the two kinds of love. One is the romantic, blissful kind that pleasantly intoxicates the soul. The other is the "Oh, shit" variety, which enters your life when you least expect--or want--it: traps your heart in a vise, squeezes it until the pain is unbearable, wrenches your gut with fear and loathing and dread, then forces you to succumb.

This latter form of attraction is the focus of Lanford Wilson's Burn This, now scorching the stage at Pillsbury House Theatre. Anna (played by Noel Raymond) is a dancer whose creative mentor and roommate has just died in a boating accident. Enter the deceased man's older brother, Pale (Jeff Tatum), a crass, belligerent, foulmouthed rube who, despite his disagreeable personality, somehow reminds Anna of her departed friend. In short order, Anna finds herself torn between the comfortable affection of her current beau, Burton, a successful screenwriter (Terry Hempleman), and the dangerous passion of Pale. Caught in the middle is Anna's gay roommate Larry (Brian Goranson), who bluntly wonders why Anna doesn't "just marry Burton and buy things."

Pillsbury House's production, directed by Ralph Remington, works hard to make Anna and Pale come off as complete opposites--maybe too hard. Between Noel Raymond's emotional vulnerability and Jeff Tatum's abusive ranting, there is a Beauty and the Beast brand of chemistry, but only if you can allow yourself to believe that Anna sees beyond Pale's volatile, lunk-headed exterior. Otherwise, it's a wonder she doesn't just call the cops.

Pale doesn't talk: He spews. He doesn't think: He reacts. He's a pent-up inferno of rage, an arrogant idiot who thinks that everyone's life is bullshit except his. In an impressively tortured performance, Jeff Tatum comes close to making us believe that Pale is going to spontaneously combust on the spot, so flammable is his ego, so psychotic his lust. As Anna's roommate Larry says, "He's one of those people you know right away is not going to say, 'Have a nice day.'"

There isn't a tremendous amount of subtlety in Remington's direction--which is the usual state of affairs around the Pillsbury House Theatre. These characters are defined in broad, bold strokes, and their actions--however questionable at times--are geared for maximum emotional impact. The good news is that Pillsbury House's production serves the script well enough to send you out of the theater completely off balance. There is definitely something uncomfortable--if not twisted--about the attraction between Pale and Anna. Remington forces us to wallow in their mutual pathologies, allowing us to feel as uncertain as the characters themselves about the relationship that has developed between them. "Will it last?" is not the question that comes to mind at play's end, but rather "Who's going to be the first to die?"

NO SUCH EMOTIONAL messiness plagues the Great American History Theatre's Tailgaitin', a surprisingly clever and well-written fan's-eye view of what it was like to be a Vikings devotee before the Dome ruined it all. Penned by Dan Rowles and Guy Green, two die-hard Viking fans with long memories and a few Coleman coolers full of snappy jokes, Tailgaitin' takes us back to the glory days of Vikings football, when the Purple People Eaters stampeded gloveless across the frozen tundra in blinding snowstorms, and fans delirious from 3.2 beer and hypothermia cheered their team on to yet another Super Bowl loss.

To call this play timely is an understatement. Tailgaitin' revels in the irony of the Metrodome outliving its usefulness, and takes well-aimed jabs at those who control pro sports in the Twin Cities. But more important, it is an affectionate reminder of what was lost when the Dome was built, and what a new stadium can never recapture.

What makes Tailgaitin' work, however, is that it doesn't dwell on Viking mania, involving itself instead with family and friends who live, eat, drink, philosophize, and argue in the parking lot that is now the Mall of America: from the very first Vikings game at Met stadium to the last. In this frosty microcosm, subjects such as Kennedy's assassination, the Vietnam War, and the relative merits of moose meat are all discussed with equal wit and enthusiasm.

You have to hand it to first-time playwrights Rowles and Green. Their script not only evokes a sense of nostalgic charm for a bygone era, but cleverly satirizes the reigning idiocy of professional sports management in the Twin Cities, pokes gentle fun at Minnesotans and their passions (particularly WCCO radio), and manages at the same time to be a warm, human drama involving dimensions of life well beyond the parking lot. As an added bonus, it will make you yearn for the days when it took something special to be a Vikings fan: the will to survive.

Burn This continues at the Pillsbury House Theatre through November 8; call 825-0459. Tailgaitin' continues at the Great American History Theatre through November 9; call 292-4323.

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