Burn, Lady, Burn!

A woman condemned to be burned at the stake as a witch. A man so disappointed in the world that he demands to be hanged for a murder he didn't commit. A nunnery virgin promised to a fiance she doesn't love. A testosterone-pumped brother bent on fratricide. Philosophical discussions about rationalism and religion, temporality and transcendence. All spoken in pseudo-15th-century English.

You guessed it: a romantic comedy.
For a brief span a few decades ago, Christopher Fry's 1950 The Lady's Not for Burning -- along with the British playwright's other comic and religious works, such as A Phoenix Too Frequent (1946) and Curtmantle (1962) -- nearly single-handedly revitalized the narrow niche of modern verse theater. Although the conceit never fully caught on, Eliot and MacLeish notwithstanding, it wasn't because Burning is one of those wheezing plays that are good for you; rather, it's an intelligent, light-hearted romp -- deft of language and robust in sentiment.

Burning's funny business occurs in the stately house of Hubble Tyson, the bungling mayor of the small Elizabethan market town of Cool Clary. Within the limits of a blowzy mind, bachelor Hubble -- aided not so greatly by Richard, a mousy, orphaned clerk -- oversees the domestic affairs of his prattling sister, Margaret, and her two battling, pretentious sons. She's a dismissive type who refuses to believe that doomsday will come in autumn because heaven would never disappoint the bulbs; son Nicholas interrupts his and his brother's tussling over lovely, innocent Alizon to tell a rioting mob how pleased he is that they're interested in civic events.

Into this dysfunctional life of Riley bursts Thomas Mendip, a tall, dark and handsome discharged soldier whose flame for living has been extinguished. Demanding to be hanged for concocted capital crimes, this decent, impassioned soul confounds the literal-minded mayor. So does the exquisite Jennet Jourdemayne, a scientist's daughter who, to her disbelief, has the townsfolk in a tizzy because it's rumored that she's a witch.

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Expounding on the worthlessness of blackened existence, Thomas argues for death. Explaining that if she were a sorceress she'd have flown the coop on her proverbial broom, Jennet argues for life. Thomas willingly confesses, though nobody wants him to; Jennet won't, though everybody wishes she would. They eye each other, as do naifs Richard and Alizon. A chaplain shows up, and a justice, too.

What to do, what to do.
Houston Skyline Theater's lead actress, Anna Krejci, certainly knows what to do, her Jennet a heroine possessing the tired wisdom of a progressive beauty misunderstood. Krejci captivates as a bemused lady of reason facing the silly but dangerous problem of superstition. Brett Williams's Thomas is personable, but not romantic, although there is palpable affection between the fated lovers. Williams -- at times resembling Kevin Kline on an off night -- more sells than charms his way as a poetic leading man. He also points a lot.

Director Chuck Hover unfortunately fills the small -- indeed, cramped -- stage with stock histrionics: the cast walking, gesturing, then talking; entering and exiting single-file; standing around watching each other speak. Double takes are mistimed, finger-countings out of sync. A few supporting players meet the challenge adequately: Candy Hernandez's I-can't-be-Christian-in-two-directions-at-once Margaret; Andrew Kunev's flamboyantly immature Nicholas, a feckless suitor who "loved Alizon once -- earlier today"; Kit Fordyce's violin-toting chaplain. The awkward majority, though, isn't up to task.

Neither is Brian Cassatt's lighting, which stays the same even though time goes from afternoon to twilight to evening. Nor is Hover's gloomily gothic set (pitch-black walls, pen-quilled writing stand, unused candelabrum): it's antithetical to the adeptly witty, orally aural goings-on. Lisa Bastt's costumes are a cut above Renaissance Festival, even though house slippers sometimes pass for period footwear.

"I have been reborn," Nicholas proclaims. Margaret replies, "Nonsense. You were born quite well the first time." Margaret surely was right about Burning's 1950 New York premiere, for John Gielgud directed and starred in it, and a young Richard Burton played Richard. Would that Houston Skyline Theater's reincarnation were not so amateurishly inadequate to Fry's challenging lark of a text.

-- Peter Szatmary

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