I wish I could praise The Burnt Part Boys (Playwrights Horizons) for its honor and sincerity, and then just let the subject drop. But honor and sincerity, necessary as they may be to great theater-making, don’t get you very far by themselves. The story you convey can be utterly dishonorable, and your telling of it flamboyantly insincere, as long as something in it makes audiences long to hear it through, and you tell it in a way that holds their attention. Failing that, spectators merely pay honor and sincerity polite homage, and drift quietly away.
The Burnt Part Boys, a musical co-produced by Playwrights Horizons and the Vineyard Theatre, tells a story that should be both relevant and moving, but somehow comes across as neither. In a West Virginia mining town in 1962, word arrives that the mine owners have reversed their decision never to reopen the sector of their mountaintop operation where a disastrous cave-in and fire occurred a decade earlier, colloquially known since then as “the burnt part.” Jake (Charlie Brady) and Chet (Andrew Durand), 18-year-old sons of miners killed in the disaster, have been invited to join the first crew to re-enter the tragic scene.
The offer, which Jake and Chet accept as a matter of course, appalls Jake’s kid brother, Pete (Al Calderon), only four when their father died; he views it as desecration. Behind Jake’s back, Pete sneaks off to the mountaintop, his bookish best pal, Dusty (Noah Galvin), in tow, concealing dynamite, filched from Jake’s miner’s tools, in his backpack, meaning to bollix the company’s plans. Jake and Chet, discovering his absence, set out in pursuit. The bulk of the evening follows the two teams alternately as they make their way across the hazardous, craggy terrain.
This slim thread of boys’-book adventure poses several basic problems for the stage. Pete’s action, however deeply grounded in emotional need, is fundamentally both foolish and futile, forcing you to watch with mixed embarrassment and empathy while two kids risk their lives pointlessly, and two hard-working, impoverished almost-grownups waste time and stress chasing after them. This degree of schadenfreude has its limits as a theatrical pleasure. And tuneful jollity isn’t precisely the optimal asset for an evening you’re obliged to spend hoping that two impulsive kids won’t accidentally blow themselves up.
From start to finish, the authors’ desire to musicalize this story remains a puzzle. Maybe they were thinking of Playwrights Horizons’ prior (mixed) success with Adam Guettel’s spelunking-disaster musical, Floyd Collins. But that work dealt extensively with the world outside the cave where its hero was trapped. And one of its principal flaws was its need to find gimmicky excuses for song and dance.
The Burnt Part Boys likewise has a gimmicky streak, even more troublesome given that it constantly seems to rebuke the story’s somber substance. Fourteen-year-old Pete’s favorite movie is John Wayne’s The Alamo (1960); each time he faces a moment of indecision along his way, the actor who has appeared in a prologue as his dead father (Michael Park) turns up in the persona of one of the film’s heroes, proffering suitably heroic advice. Park handles these scenes with aplomb (his wily Jim Bowie is particularly diverting), but one’s gratitude for the interruption mingles with annoyance at the authors having stooped to this hokey showbiz tactic. They stretch the fabric similarly, though with better grounding, to give the bookworm a “charm” number and to inject a female presence into their cast (a runaway teenage girl, vividly played by Molly Ranson). To round things off, there’s a wince-producing fake happy ending before the actual finish.
The show’s spare texture heightens the visibility of these lapses, which tend to jump out at you because the bulk of the evening is carried on with a sober, earnest honesty that, worse luck, rarely rises above sober earnestness: Mariana Elder’s script and Nathan Tysen’s lyrics almost never ring false; Chris Miller’s music supports them with seemingly authentic country tunes (effectively orchestrated by Floyd Collins alumnus Bruce Coughlin). But their uninspired results offer little resonance. Joe Calarco’s production, similarly, seems to have aimed for a dry accuracy. He lets set designer Brian Prather build the story’s mountaintops and mineshafts out of a few constantly repositioned ladders, producing all the magical effect of your average home-repair job. The cast, young and hardworking, does what it can under these stark circumstances.
The adjective “hardworking” would likewise suit the two performers of Stephen Belber’s Dusk Rings a Bell, which frustrates because it spends so much time avoiding the potential power at its core. Belber has chosen an elaborate and tiresome way into his story; once its center is reached, he lets his characters alternately toy with it and thump it over the head with brittle chunks of jargon.
An unhappy, compulsively chatty PR gal (Kate Walsh), facing a lonely midlife in Washington, D.C., goes back, one winter, to a summer home from her high school days, to retrieve a memento she hid there at age 14. Breaking into the deserted house, she finds the item but gets caught by the caretaker (Paul Sparks), who turns out to be a boy she made out with on a deserted beach that very summer. This ornate backstory doesn’t register more convincingly by being handed to us largely in rather verbose narration instead of dialogue.
Since their teenage beach tryst, we learn, each has gotten into and out of an unhappy marriage, and he has done time in prison for his largely passive share in a nasty crime, committed a few summers later near the same beach. As the might-have-beens pile up behind them, they share a renewed fling that, predictably, again leads nowhere. Neither mentions the disparity in economic class that partially underlies both their relationship’s failure and his crime; the script’s overall attitude seems merely a wistful shrug. Under Sam Gold’s tender, unforced direction, the ever-reliable Sparks, given far better material, comes off strongly; Walsh, with many more lines but far less substance, makes her role touching without concealing its basic inanity.