MAKING SIGNS: Tyler Ritter (right) plays Steve in ‘The Dream of the Burning Boy.’ (Photo courtesy Brian McCarthy)

MAKING SIGNS: Tyler Ritter (right) plays Steve in ‘The Dream of the Burning Boy.’ (Photo courtesy Brian McCarthy)

It’s a long drive up the Pacific Coast Highway to the Malibu Playhouse, but it’s worth it.

A new off-Broadway play is making its West Coast premiere and it’s beautifully written by David West Read, beautifully acted by an outstanding ensemble, and well directed by Edward Edwards.

The play is called “The Dream of the Burning Boy,” a compelling title, but it isn’t exactly what the play is about. It’s a metaphor, from a story about a man who so wished to have one last moment with his dead son that he doesn’t respond when the boy catches fire in his coffin.

The metaphor is more grim than the play, which is lively and full of humor, even though it tells the story of a popular young student who dies suddenly, and the impact of that death on his fellow students, his girlfriend, his mother, his sister, and, most especially, his beloved English teacher.

The teacher, Larry, played by veteran Broadway actor Jeff Hayenga, was the last person to see Dane (Matthias Chrans) alive, so he is haunted by his dreams of the young man. He is also haunted by the challenges in his life that he has avoided and the lost opportunities of the “might have beens.”

A young counselor at the school, Steve (Tyler Ritter), a former student of Larry’s who is compassionate and sensitive but not too bright, steps in to conduct grief counseling sessions for the students, which he augments by printing up signs with feel-good messages like “everything will be all right” and “lean on me.”

Dane’s mother (Melissa Kite) breaks down in Larry’s office when she comes to confront him about the last conversation he had with the boy just before he died. And Dane’s younger sister Rachel (Jsyne McLendon) acts out her anger and grief at her brother’s death by lashing out at everyone, including Dane’s girlfriend, Chelsea (Joslyn Kramer). Rachel’s attitude is demonstrated by the clothes she wears to school: pajama bottoms and an oversized hoodie jacket, and by the foul language she uses.

Scenic designer Erin Walley makes her Los Angeles debut in this production (she is a recent arrival from Kansas City) and has managed to squeeze Larry’s classroom, Steve’s counseling office, and the school library into a relatively small set effectively.

“The Dream of the Burning Boy” premiered in 2011 at the Roundabout Underground in New York and was a Drama League Award nominee for Distinguished Production of a Play. It was also nominated for an award for a New American Play by the Outer Critics Circle.

Playwright West Read has been commissioned to write plays for the Roundabout Theatre Company, Burnt Umber Productions, and Southern California’s South Coast Repertory.

Director Edwards’ most recent production, which he directed and co-produced was “Tender Napalm,” which was an L.A. Weekly Pick of the Week and Ovation Recommended. As an actor, he won the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor in the play “The Hasty Heart.”

“The Dream of the Burning Boy” will continue Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through Oct. 13 at the Malibu Playhouse, 29243 Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu (near Zuma beach). For tickets, call (310) 589-1998 or visit www.malibuplayhouse.org.

 

 

Cynthia Citron can be reached at ccitron@socal.rr.com.