Burt (Or When I Was Five I Killed Myself)
Theatre Babylon, 720-1942.
Through Nov 10.

Teddi Yaeger's adaptation of Howard Buten's lost American novel (and blockbuster-in-translation in Europe) is soaked in the kind of resonant detail that makes hit plays. Precocious eight-year-old Burt experiences a litany of childhood horrors, from being scared of the water to desperately wanting to win a spelling bee, and lands in a children's home due to a tragic misapplication of life's lessons while attempting to console a classmate. A clinical psychologist, Buten nails how children often lack the resources, patience, and wisdom to react to threatening circumstances with anything but hysterical avoidance. He may overload his thesis on his protagonist's head, but if you can't feel for at least one of Burt's excruciating traumas by play's end, I want to kick your ass.

Where the play suffers most is from its manufactured narrative momentum. The measured pacing and structure let everyone except the dimmest audience member know on both an overt and subconscious level that Something Awful Happened. By the time it arrives, the well-played scene feels less like a revelation or an organic event and more like necessary dramatic closure. This is a shame, because Burt's misplaced intimacy is a moment of exquisite, ironic poignancy that should be appreciated for the questions it raises rather than the dramatic answer it provides. By obscuring such insights, Yaeger's raw and emotionally devastating script teeters uncomfortably on the brink of being blunt, heavy-handed, and self-satisfied.

Most of the cast, and particularly the leads, give strong performances. In many plays, it's a distraction to watch adults playing children who exhibit elements of sexuality--but in this play it's a strength. Brian Culver gives a fine performance as Burt, a role he's followed from earlier productions to this one. His exaggerated demeanor not only keeps pace with the show's broadly played comedic elements, it even suggests the man-child Burt might become. Tina Kunz and Howard Stregack come closest to matching Culver's intensity; their scenes together make the show.