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Burning Blue

Mike Doyle and Matthew Del Negro
in Burning Blue
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Tape-recorded voiceovers crackle over the speakers at the beginning of D.M.W. Greer's earnest and provocative but flawed play Burning Blue. It's not an auspicious beginning, as the disembodied dialogue robs the opening moments of theatrical vitality and sets a plodding pace that the actors have to struggle to overcome.

The play centers around the investigation of Lt. Dan Lynch (Mike Doyle) following a fatal accident involving three F-18 jets. Dan, who was not even flying one of the planes at the time of the incident, is nevertheless questioned regarding whether his relationship with the deceased pilot, Lt. Matthew "Ironman" Blackwood (Matthew Del Negro), was of a sexual nature. The action skips back and forth between the past and the present day, revealing key moments in the lives of the two officers as well as that of Dan's best friend, Lt. Will Stephenson (Chad Lowe), and Lt. j.g. Charlie Trumbo (Bill Dawes).

The topic of gays in the military is handled sensitively and with some complexity. The play delves into the social bonds between men that include homoerotic innuendo and horseplay without sacrificing the testosterone driven masculinity at the core of these men's lives. The nude sequences within the play underscore this easy camaraderie. It's clear that friendship comes first; sexual attraction is secondary.

However, the play veers a little too far into melodrama to make it completely workable. Instead of restraining these melodramatic elements, director John Hickock seems bent on enhancing them. In a flight sequence involving the four pilots, Matt can't stop thinking about a visit to a gay club while on shore leave. In order to achieve this effect, lighting designer Philip Widmer flashes a red strobe onto Matt while a disco beat plays (Hickock is also responsible for the sound design), and the overall effect is rather cheesy.

The cast members are likeable but, for the most part, do not plumb the depths of their characters' emotions. Lowe is the most guilty in this regard -- although, to be fair his character is called upon by the script to withhold his emotions throughout much of the second act. His coldness towards his wife Susan (Sherri Parker Lee) is indicative of an inner turmoil resulting from guilt, abandonment, and jealousy; but if there were earlier hints of these underlying issues, it would be more plausible and moving when he finally lets loose in the final scene. Instead, the moment just seems like more melodrama.

While Doyle and Del Negro don't exactly light up the stage with their desire for each other (a crucial kiss in the second act seems somewhat tame), what they do capture is the awkwardness of growing attraction. Del Negro, in particular, is adept at conveying one thing with his words and another with his body. His mixed signals are appropriately received by Doyle's Dan, who seems at a loss as how to behave around his friend.

A particularly bright point in the production is Bill Dawes, who is excellent in a role that could quite easily be a stereotype. This actor possesses magnetic stage presence, good comic timing, and a facility for making even cliché-ridden lines sound fresh and new. Dawes plays the rookie pilot, aptly nicknamed "Boner." With a hick accent that you could cut with a knife, this fellow spins tales of questionable sexual practices involving barnyard animals, yet Dawes makes him completely sincere and good natured.

Mike Doyle, Chad Lowe, and Bill Dawes in Burning Blue
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Burning Blue is supposedly set after President Clinton's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy was instated, yet there is no specific mention of that policy. In point of fact, the military agents conducting the investigation do nothing but ask. I'm not so naïve as to think that the crackdown on gays in the military stopped following "Don't, Ask Don't Tell." Indeed, according to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, three to four military personnel lose their jobs every day under the policy. As a former naval aviator, Greer presumably knows exactly how these military witch-hunts are conducted -- but it does seem strange that not a single character in the play references "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," if only to demonstrate how it is not being followed.

At its best, Burning Blue is a vehement rebuttal to a military practice that is unfair and discriminatory. But unlike Marc Wolf's Another American: Asking and Telling, which also addressed the topic of gays in the military, Greer's play overstates its case without ever achieving the emotional depth that the topic merits.


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