Reading Dante can challenge even a bright adolescent, but the Divine Comedy rarely does your head in. Yet that’s apparently the case in The Dream of the Burning Boy, a sympathetic but unsuccessful play scripted by David West Read and directed by Evan Cabnet at Roundabout Underground.
In the opening scene, star student Dane (Josh Caras) meets with his English teacher, Larry (Reed Birney), to discuss a paper entitled “Losing My Virgil-ity: My First Date With Dante”—only to suffer a brain aneurysm. The play then follows Larry’s grief, as well as the sorrows of Dane’s sister, girlfriend, best friend, and mother, combining extracts from Dante and Freud with high school melodrama.
A young playwright, Read is at least a decade away from both the adolescents and their elders. (His only age-mate in the script is a deeply ineffectual guidance counselor who responds to tragedy with a poster campaign.) The conversations among the teenagers, though overwrought, seem possibly credible, but Read’s notion of how adults speak and behave strains plausibility, particularly in the scene between Larry and Dane’s mother. Birney’s talents alone keep the dialogue from devolving into absurdity, but this English teacher deserves a better lesson plan.