Burst is Packed with Energy

In the 1967 Mike Nichols movie The Graduate, one of the most memorable lines was actually one word: “Plastics.” Back then plastic was the way of the future, a convenience, an economic driver, something on which a college graduate (or even a drop out) could build a successful career. Fast forward to now: plastic has infiltrated our lives and our environment in significant and life-altering ways. Perhaps its real future is in how to manage plastic’s more destructive properties.

That’s what is at the heart of Burst, a new play by Rachel Bublitz on stage now at Alleyway Theatre. What else is surrounding that heart? Betrayal, lies, bravado so intense that if it was indeed masking insecurity, the root cause would never see daylight, and a polyester zip-front vest.

Yes, Burst has a lot going on for a 90-minute three-hander. And it is good. Scary good. Tracie Lane is Sarah Boyd, the marketing maven of Tactix, a burst-on-the-scene company she founded with college pal Jennifer Weaver (Aleks Malejs) when they met at UC/Berkley (natch). They raised some of their start up capital selling a Shark Tank-worthy gimmick: a pair of socks called the 50/50. You sent in 50 plastic bottles to recycle and $50 and you received a pair of socks, allegedly made from the recycled plastic bottles. Brilliant, huh? Well, in hindsight, maybe not practical and certainly not accessible ($50 for a pair of socks?). This is the kind of sizzle that gets you on the cover of Forbes. It’s also the fodder for a plan that can also flame out when something goes awry. It’s Sarah’s drive that launched the biz while Jennifer used her science skills (albeit Sarah snarls “Nobody cares about science” when the two rumble) to create the process that would change the molecular structure of plastic from the oh-so-‘70s recycled biodegradable stuff of Earth Day fame to something new and very well…saleable. Except…maybe it isn’t there. Or even possible. Or is it? And who knows the truth?

This is the sheer brilliance of this story: it’s a friendship gone bad story. It’s an ambition obfuscates authenticity story. It’s zeal couched in marketing story. And like I said, it’s scary good.

From the very start of the show, when her character is practicing a presentation, saying, “The problem is plastic,” Lane is on fire. She shifts from angry to ecstatic to cunning and charming. She never leaves the stage and she commands your attention every moment that she paces the set. Malejs is just as intense in her way; she’s a scientist, bound by integrity but caught in a whirling orbit manufactured by her business partner. She is focused, quietly righteous, probably intimidated as all get out. When Christine Turturro enters as Alexis the reporter – who Sarah thinks will crank out a puff piece – the dynamic is already volatile. Alexis’ questions test Sarah and Jennifer…and more layers of this fascinating story are exposed.

I really like this group of actors here. This is a different role for Malejs as the docile friend in the shadow of a big personality. She steps back well. I had only seen Lane’s performance in Irish Classical Theatre Company’s Stage Kiss last season and frankly, I wasn’t bowled over by the production at all. This was a delight and a relief to see her so engaged. Turturro never disappoints; she gives Alexis the wisdom of a veteran reporter and the ferocity someone looking for her breakout story.

Director Daniel F. Lendzian manages this trio by keeping the pace fast and rhythmic. Malejs and Lane bounce off each other perfectly in their roles: the more rivetingly intense Sarah is, the more quietly, righteously Jennifer retreats. Turturro brings a new spark to this dance. As the reporter, she’s done her scrubbing (newsroom jargon for deep background research) and she knows the flaws and is ready to go public. And this is where the real fun begins.

Collin Ranney’s set – Sarah’s mid-century office – was clean and sleek. It was a curious design choice (a retro ‘60s vibe from when plastic was less evil) and the back wall filled with empty plastic bottles was the perfect counterpoint. Emma Schimminger kept the lighting bright, almost fluorescent. Shifting the colors of the plastic bottles on the back wall made it seem like performance art.

I have to say, I wasn’t expecting this when I saw the show description. It wasn’t the “let’s fix the environment” tale I had anticipated. It’s a character study of ambition taking a wrong turn, and a constructed college relationship detouring where personal passions collide with integrity. The characters you don’t see – Lee, the gatekeeper, Nina, the assistant, and the college professor/mentor – are still vivid in how Sarah and Jennifer discuss them. Dang, it’s good.

Burst runs 90 minutes with no intermission, to November 12.  Tix and info at http://www.alleyway.com.