My understanding of Richard Burton’s life and legacy, prior to seeing this play, was admittedly limited to knowing that he was married (twice) to Elizabeth Taylor, not without controversy; that he was a fairly prominent Shakespearean actor; and that he and Taylor channeled their own marital woes to rave reviews in taking on Edward Albee’s infamous George and Martha in the film adaptation of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” After seeing Scena Theatre’s production of “Playing Burton” at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, my Burton knowledge hasn’t necessarily been expanded, though I now have a more accessible and visceral context for the actor’s life.
The highlight of this production is without question Brian Mallon as Burton…exuberance and…passion…energy…
Written by Mark Jenkins, the one-man show blends the more turbulent moments of Burton’s life with literary allusions that seem to want to try and create a neat and tidy little arc encapsulating that life. As we all know, however, life almost always resists such an arc. So, while the play does cleverly highlight Burton’s Faustian bargain with the Mephistopheles-in-charge-of-movie-stardom, there are some moments that seem needlessly forced into the play’s otherwise well-meaning outline.
We get a bit about Burton’s childhood. It is fascinating to find out that the all-but foundling actor was essentially “adopted” in a Pygmalion-like twist by his acting teacher, with Burton assuming the earnest and naive Eliza Doolittle role in that relationship. Audiences are also privy to the inner workings of a young and scrappy Burton’s “Hollywood or bust” mindset, as he continuously uses the reprise, “from Prince to King”—both as related to one of the Shakespearean roles for which he was known and also as a larger frame for understanding the rise (and implicit “fall”) of Richard Burton the actor.
The highlight of this production is without question Brian Mallon as Burton. His exuberance and obvious passion for the part are always front and center. Carl Gudenius’ set is as minimalist a theatrical set as you can get, consisting of a side table and chair in the middle of a true black box. Audiences definitely sense a “man as an island unto himself” vibe from the production. Mallon provocatively pulls off the existentialist despair that both the script and staging demand. The interruption of an old school phone serves as the only lifeline to the outside world that Burton has in this Faustian universe he inhabits; quite a lonely premise. Michael C. Stepowany’s lighting design does a perfect job of vacillating between the manic hope and hopelessness of the idiosyncratic Burton.
Ultimately, it is Mallon’s energy, his willingness to use every corner of the stage as well as every corner of his mind that infuses this play with life. The actor’s seamless accent switching as he assumes the roles of fondly (and not so fondly) remembered Burton acquaintances is extremely entertaining. His adroit use of subtly placed platforms and boxes helps to lend a greater depth and intensity to his performance. Imagining Mallon as Richard Burton was by no means a stretch. You genuinely feel for the character as he battles his two self-identified demons: alcohol and pretty women—one pretty woman in particular.
Running Time: Approximately 85 minutes with one intermission.
“Playing Burton” runs through December 18, 2022, presented by Scena Theatre at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St NE Washington, DC 20002. For more information and tickets, go online. For more information about Scena Theatre, click here. Face masks are required all times for all patrons, visitors, and staff regardless of vaccination status in all indoor spaces in the Atlas Performing Arts Center. Mask may be briefly removed when actively eating or drinking in designated areas.