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Tony Nominee Lou Diamond Phillips Brings His Burning Desire to the Stage

Phillips' devilish romantic comedy makes its world premiere at Seven Angels Theatre.

Lou Diamond Phillips' comedic play Burning Desire is now making its world premiere at Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury, Connecticut — but the multihyphenate artist would be hard-pressed to call it a "new" piece. The story of love and heartbreak first came to him in the early 1990s, and he has been developing the work ever since, with writing sprints on the LIRR during his Tony-nominated run in The King and I and several subsequent readings all across the country. Phillips, who plays Lucifer in his modern-day Adam and Eve tale, took some time between rehearsals to discuss the play's evolution. It's a debut several decades in the making, but to him, any time he can steal away from the screen to tread the boards is time well spent.

Lou Diamond Phillips stars in the world premiere of his play Burning Desire, running through March 13 at Seven Angels Theatre.
(© Bobby Quillard)

How would you describe Burning Desire?
It's basically the tale of a modern-day Adam and Eve who are granted true love by the Devil. When I say Adam and Eve, I basically mean an innocent young couple. The most interesting twist of the play is that if there is a balance to the universe, a heaven and a hell, a God and a Satan, then Lucifer has half the responsibility for love. But obviously when he gives somebody love, he has a much different agenda. It's all about the hopeless heartbroken romantic who would sell his soul for true love.

What gave you the idea for the play?
In the early '90s, I had a little bit of a breakup with a girlfriend, and that sort of got me thinking about the dark side of love — how something so pretty and shiny could turn so jaded and bitter. And I wrote the opening monologue that you still see in the play today. But I didn't know how to finish it. I didn't know what I was going to do with it. So off it went into a drawer for a number of years. And literally when I was doing The King and I, it came to me — how to finish the play and what the whole arc of it was. I ended up writing the play on the LIRR. I was actually living out in Great Neck, so I'd take my laptop on the train and write on the way in and then write on the way back. I don't drink anymore, but I used to get a forty in a brown paper bag, and [I] finished [the play] in a couple of weeks.

How did the opportunity for this production at the Seven Angels Theatre come up?
[In 1998] I did a reading with Brooke Shields and Noah Wyle at the Coronet Theatre in Los Angeles, and that's where [the show's director] Richie [Zavaglia] first got familiar with the play. [In 2007] I did A Few Good Men, the Aaron Sorkin play, [with Richie] in my old stomping grounds in Fort Worth. He said, "Did you ever do anything with it?" I said, "You know what Richie, take it, run with it, if you can find a place to do it, I'll do it. I'll show up." We did a reading last February at St. Malachy's Actors' Chapel in Manhattan, and that basically led to this. It's been a long road to get here, but it feels like it's the right time to see it happen.

Have you had a chance to see the new King and I now that you're back on the East Coast?
As a matter of fact, I've made it a point. Last fall I was doing a guest-spot on Blindspot shooting in New York, so immediately I go, "Well, I've got to go see the new show." And it just so happened that at the time, Jose Llana was playing the King, and Jose was my Lun Tha. Lun Tha was his first Broadway credit twenty years ago. Cut to him doing the King! Before the show he goes, "Listen, I stole some of your bits." [laughs]

Do you enjoy taking time away from film and television to come back to the stage?
One hundred percent. When I did The King and I way back when, it just reminded me how much I love theater and how I'd drifted away from it for a while. This is...where my love for acting began, and so I've made an effort to get back every few years and do something on the boards. I really do believe it informs the film work and the television work when you get back to basics in building a character from the ground up — and not only that but learning a sh*tload of lines. [laughs]

What do you hope audiences take away from Burning Desire?
It is most definitely designed to be a comedy. I almost never get to do comedy, so I had write one for myself. But it does have some of my philosophical ruminations. It's got a couple of things that are on my mind and certainly some of my philosophies. It owes a bit to Woody Allen, it owes a bit to Thornton Wilder and Our Town. My influencers are very obvious in the play. Like my friend Jose Llana said, "I stole a few bits." [laughs]

Lou Diamond Phillips as Lucifer, flanked by young lovers Evan (Tara Franklin) and Andrew (Ryan Wesley Gilreath).
(© Paul Roth)