They say that the devil is in the details, and actor-playwright Lou Diamond Phillips and his director Richard Zavaglia have jam-packed Diamond’s new play, “Burning Desire,” full of almost every possible joke or reference to old Beelzebub, accompanied by snippets from nearly every song about Ol’ Nick, such as “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” But rather than be annoying, they add to the enjoyment of the dastardly romantic comedy that is enjoying its world premiere at Waterbury’s Seven Angels Theatre, through Sunday, March 12.
Who knew that Phillips, who first burst to fame in the role of Richie Valens in the film “La Bamba,” and who has gone on to a busy career in film and television, wanted to be a playwright as well? We have his friend, the actor Dan Lauria, for bringing the play to the attention of Seven Angels’ Artistic Director Semina De Laurentis who included it in this season’s schedule.
Quite appropriately, Diamond has saved the best role for himself, the impeccably dressed, debonair, dark one, who introduces himself to the audience as Lucifer, with no apologies. Emerging from a cloud of smoke, Diamond is right at home in the devil’s togs, having played any number of suave villains or characters with dark secrets over the course of his film and TV work. He’s played his share of do-gooders as well, as in his current role on Netflix’s “Longmire,” so can also exude an air of authority and responsibility, which serves his devilish character well.
Diamond’s story here is quite simple. He’s struck by an attractive young woman named Evan, who approaches relationships and dating with an unusual honesty and integrity, so much so that the devil has decided to grant her what he calls “a perfect love.” She will meet her soulmate and fall into such a straightforward love that he suspects she will ultimately be willing to relinquish her soul in order to secure her love’s safety. It’s obvious that the devil desires Evan for himself and sees this as a crafty way to get her to agree to stay with him for eternity.
Lucifer proceeds to introduce Evan to Andrew, a trim, intelligent man of equal insecurity in love, who, despite his uncanny ability to put his foot into his mouth in nearly every conversation with Evan, manages to capture her heart, just as he is smitten by her. With the prodding of the devil, who pours suggestions and ideas into their heads in order to quick-start the relationship as well as prepares a canopy bed for them, their coupledom is sealed by the time we see them together a month later.
Evan and Andrew don’t always behave or react in the way that Lucifer expects them to, which causes him frequent frustration and requires him to intervene a bit more often than he would like and ultimately to change his plans on the fly to adapt to the developing situation. Ultimately, Lucifer decides to bargain with Andrew over Evan’s safety, setting his sights on both of their souls.
Tara Franklin does an excellent job as Evan, portraying a confident young woman who’s not sure she is ready for love, but succumbs to Andrew’s charms and insistence. Franklin’s Evan is a definitely modern woman, successfully capturing the moods and vocal cadences of an ambitious twenty-something and demonstrating a sufficient amount of strength in fighting for what she wants and knowing when it is appropriate to break free when something isn’t working.
Ryan Wesley Gilreath does an equally fine job as Andrew, conveying a typical man’s over-confidence that masks a very real amount of self-doubt that he must maneuver in order to be comfortable in this new relationship. Gilreath ably demonstrates Andrew’s adherence to the male code of action, which gradually slides away as the relationship deepens, although he’s not one to avoid taking off his shirt to remind Evan of its textured abs at particularly opportunistic moments in their burgeoning affair.
As our charming narrator and guide, Phillips anchors the evening as he reveals more and more his plans and share stories of his previous successes and conquests. He also steps in to play various other roles such as a waiter, and managing to top himself as he plays a man and a woman in two separate but simultaneous scenes with Evan and Andrew. He is assisted in his effort by a pair of scantily clad minions, who serve as back-up dancers, loyal go-fers, and occasional extras in Lucifer’s ongoing efforts to manipulate his pair of star-crossed lovers. Sophie Lee Morris and Jackie Aitken seductively handle choreographer Mic Thompson’s gyrating moves as they add just the right hint of seething decadence just below the surface.
Zaviglia’s staging is fairly straightforward, aided at all times by Diamond’s all-seeing eyes, which can say more with a glance, a stare, a raised eyebrow or a crunched bridge of the nose than any number of lines of dialogue. In Diamond’s free-flowing vision of the story, not a lot of scenery is required, just the suggestion of fresh fruit and vegetable counters for a supermarket, a movable canopy bed for a bedroom (as it floats about under the control of the two minions, I actually kept hoping it would spin to convey the delight and delirium of the lovers’ first night together), or a well-dressed table for an elegant restaurant, under set designer Matt Iacozza’s direction. Vivianna Lamb is responsible for the costumes, which include Diamond’s tonsorially elegant outfits for his master manipulator, razzle-dazzle for the eager minions, and some appropriate dating clothes for Evan and Andrew.
Matt Guminski’s lighting design works overtime to reflect the devil’s many moods, ominous or leering, particularly in his frequent asides to the audience, while Mant Martin’s sound design contributes any number of effects to creatively enhance a specific scene.
Phillips’ dialogue not only allows us to hear Lucifer outline his plans, but also enables us to listen in on to the thoughts of the two lovers, often while in the midst of conversations with one another, allowing us to identify with the hesitations and insecurities that seemingly occur in most relationships. Once one gets attached to the rhythm of such multiply-directed dialogue, it becomes very easy to distinguish between the characters’ thoughts and actual conversations, especially when they unknowingly are responding to or rejecting a suggestion that the devil is attempting to implant into their brains.
Toward the end, Phillips introduces a glimpse at some heavier, more complicated issues, which indeed offer some moments of provocative thought. But despite some fears on the audience’s part that the situation may get too weighty or even tragic, Phillips resolves them with a dainty deux-ex-machina, a concept which he described earlier in the evening when he explained why he got kicked out of heaven. He merely wanted to have a good time, Phillips has him demurely protest.
The main reason to check out “Burning Desire” is to see Lou Diamond Phillips have a good time, while his character, Lucifer, tries to manipulate the situation to show off his power and get what he want, even though mere humans disappoint him at every opportunity. It’s also interesting to see what kind of play Phillips would come up with. His interests are indeed wide-ranging. He has appeared on Broadway and on tour as the King in “The King and I,” as well as in “Camelot,” and has earned a reputation as a “fusion” chef appearing on numerous television cooking shows. He also has an abiding interest in poker, participating in the 2010 World Series of Poker. “Burning Desire” proves that he can write funny, create characters of above-average interest, and take some chances in front of a live audience.
For information and tickets, contact the Seven Angels Theatre Box Office at 203.757.4676 or visit the theater’s website at www.sevenangelstheatre.org. Special activities this weekend include Wine and Martini Night on Friday, March 11, The Cave MicroBrew Night on Saturday, March 12, and Sundaes on Sunday on Sunday, March 13.