Jessica Rothenberg, Jake O'Connor, Reed Birney, and
Alexandra Socha in The Dream of the Burning Boy
(© Joan Marcus)
Jessica Rothenberg, Jake O'Connor, Reed Birney, and
Alexandra Socha in The Dream of the Burning Boy
(© Joan Marcus)
Death comes to a small suburban high school in David West Read's fine new play, The Dream of the Burning Boy, now being presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company and sensitively directed by Evan Cabnet.

The play is a touching examination of grief as experienced by those closest to Dane (Josh Caras), a young man who passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. High school English teacher Larry Morrow (Reed Birney) was the last one to see him alive before the boy suffered a fatal brain aneurysm in the school's hallway. Larry keeps having dreams about their final meeting, and guidance counselor Steve (Matt Dellapina) is worried about his colleague's mental health. Larry insists that he's fine, although annoyed that following Dane's death, many of his students are skipping classes as they get a certain amount of "trauma leave."

Interestingly, among those who continue to show up is Dane's sister, Rachel (Alexandra Socha), who misses her brother, but also feels rage at those who she believes are using Dane's death to undeservedly call attention to themselves. This includes Chelsea (Jessica Rothenberg), who was Dane's girlfriend -- although Rachel suspects she was actually cheating on him with Dane's best friend Kyle (Jake O'Connor).

Birney delivers a beautifully layered performance, as Larry expresses an outward calm while being inwardly shaken by Dane's death for reasons that become clearer as the play progresses. Socha similarly presents a façade of indifference as Rachel, which masks a far more vulnerable state of mind, which the actress brilliantly displays during a scene set in a library.

Although the play's subject matter is quite serious, Read does manage to insert a number of more comic moments into his script. However, he goes a little overboard in showing Steve's bumbling attempts to heal those around him, which reaches the epitome of bad taste with a ludicrous song that Steve sings to Dane's mother (the excellent Kristie Dale Sanders). Steve thinks he can re-purpose the tune, which he initially wrote after a breakup with his girlfriend, to also pay tribute to Dane -- but with lyrics that include "Recalling your touch, I miss it that much," it's obviously inappropriate.

Set designer Lee Savage has done a fine job in transforming the small black box theater into something that really does resemble a classroom, and with an economy of furniture transforms into several different locations within the school. Likewise, Ben Stanton makes good use of overhead fluorescents that mimic the lighting within a school setting, while also bringing other lighting instruments into play when a softer effect is needed.