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More heat than light in The Huntington’s ‘The Art of Burning’

Clio Contogenis (left) and Adrianne Krstansky in the Huntington's "The Art of Burning."T Charles Erickson

Few if any theatermakers in Boston have shepherded more new works to the stage than Kate Snodgrass, the longtime artistic director of Boston Playwrights’ Theatre before stepping down last year.

A tireless champion of playwrights, Snodgrass is also an accomplished dramatist herself. And now her “The Art of Burning” is premiering at The Huntington (as the Huntington Theatre Company now calls itself) under the direction of Melia Bensussen.

A drama about a painter named Patricia (Adrianne Krstansky) who is enmeshed in an extremely acrimonious divorce and custody battle with her soon-to-be-ex-husband, Jason (Rom Barkhordar), “The Art of Burning” explores the causes of Patricia’s rage while keeping us guessing about how far she is prepared to go.


There’s no gainsaying that Snodgrass sounds some resonant notes here, delivering trenchant insights into the multiple forms male entitlement can take. And the fever-pitch intensity of “The Art of Burning” is squarely in the wheelhouse of the ever-fearless Krstansky.

But the 85-minute “The Art of Burning” nonetheless registers as fragmentary and underdeveloped. Its disparate parts don’t quite jell, and the ending feels rushed. A fuller examination of marriage and its discontents would require more than the thin and one-dimensional portrait of Jason we see here.

His name is part of Snodgrass’s attempt to interlace Patricia’s story with that of “Medea." As “The Art of Burning” opens on Luciana Stecconi’s smoothly efficient set, which transitions from conference room to home to museum, Patricia has just seen a stage production of Euripides’s tragedy, in which Medea murders her children in an act of vengeance against her unfaithful husband, Jason.

A betrayal is also what broke up the marriage between Patricia and Jason: He had an affair with a younger woman, an attorney named Katya (Vivia Font). As retaliation, Patricia burned Jason’s antique roll-top desk in the backyard.


After seeing “Medea,” an enthralled Patricia claims that Medea’s heinous act “saves her children,” adding: “She doesn’t want to, but she has to. The world will make their lives miserable, and she doesn’t want that. She loves them.”

Is she serious, or just being provocative? How much does Patricia identify with Medea? The question acquires a chilling urgency when Beth (a very good Clio Contogenis), the teenage daughter of Patricia and Jason, apparently goes missing. And what’s up with those red blotches on Patricia’s shirt: Is it paint (red is the color that dominates her paintings) or blood?

The mediator for the final phase of Patricia and Jason’s divorce is an attorney friend of theirs, Mark (Michael Kaye). In a role that presumably calls for impartiality, it’s clear he’s on Jason’s side.

From left: Adrianne Krstansky, Michael Kaye, and Rom Barkhordar in The Huntington's "The Art of Burning."T Charles Erickson

Mark is married to Charlene (Laura Latreille), and — in an illustration of one of the play’s themes, that men do not really see the women they’re married to — Mark has always serenely assumed Charlene loves musicals. So he keeps buying tickets to them. In fact, Charlene hates musicals and has told him so (her taste runs more to Ibsen and O’Neill).

The already white-hot tensions between Patricia and Jason are further inflamed when she demands full custody of Beth. Jason has previously said he wants full custody. The nastiness of the verbal showdowns between the warring parties has the ring of truth. Caught in the middle is Beth, who also has to cope with some of the nastier elements of high school life.


Indeed, one of the most poignant scenes in “The Art of Burning” occurs when Beth recounts her disastrous date with a sexually aggressive boy in a movie theater. Based on what Beth sees of adult relationships, it’s doubtful she feels much optimism about the future.


Play by Kate Snodgrass. Directed by Melia Bensussen. Presented by The Huntington in association with Hartford Stage. At Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Through Feb. 12. Digital access to filmed performance available until Feb. 26. Tickets for in-person performances and the digital performance range from $25-$119. 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org

Don Aucoin can be reached at donald.aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.