The subject of Burning Coal Theatre Company's intriguing world-premiere production of The Man Who Tried to Save the World, a new biographical drama written by Burning Coal artistic director Jerome Davis and New York City dramatist Floraine Kay, based on a book by Scott Anderson, and briskly staged by NYC director Matthew Earnest, is the late, great disaster-relief specialist Fred Cuny (1944-95). Cuny, who is vividly portrayed here by David Henderson, was a long, tall Texan of Falstaffian stature.
He was a larger-than-life character with Texas-sized character flaws. But when it came to responding to natural and man-made disasters and dirty little wars in Africa, Southeast Asia, Kurdistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya, Cuny rushed in where angels (and other disaster-relief specialists) feared to tread. The fact that he was proud and boastful and prone to embellish episodes of his life with demonstrable falsehoods may be off-putting to some. But Cuny was also fearless and brilliantly innovative when it came to his chosen field. His legacy includes thousands of lives saved and dramatic improvement in the quality of life for tens of thousands of other people.
To the governmental bureaucrats charged with providing disaster relief on four continents, Fred Cuny — a.k.a. "The Master of Disaster" — probably seemed like a human dynamo, recklessly slashing bureaucratic red tape and boldly improvising imaginative nontraditional solutions to even the thorniest problems. No doubt he made as many enemies as friends. In the end, when Cuny mysteriously disappeared on a mission of mercy to a small town in Chechnya under Russian bombardment, it is impossible to tell whether the Russians or the Chechen rebels killed him. His body was never found.
Playwrights Jerry Davis and Floraine Kay and director Matthew Earnest chronicle Fred Cuny's impressive professional achievements and deplorable personal peccadilloes in rapid-fire fashion, with David Henderson adding to his already considerable acting laurels by providing a charismatic center about which veritable blizzard of facts swirl. Some stick, and some don't.
The drab olive jumpsuits worn by most of the supporting cast may facilitate the seamless transition from character to character, as those actors assume multiple roles; but it also adds an element of confusion. After a while, it is hard for the casual observer to tell the sheep from the goats, the bureaucrats from the journalists, the Russians from the Chechens.
Fred Cuny found a belated Boswell in war correspondent-turned-biographer Scott Anderson, who in May 1999 detailed Cuny's remarkable live and times in The Man Who Tried to Save the World: The Dangerous Life and Mysterious Disappearance of an American Hero. Terry Milner is excellent as Anderson, bravely birddogging the truth about Fred Cuny wherever his dangerous researches might take him; and Canady Vance is outstanding as Cuny's friend and sometimes business partner Jinx Parker.
Trae Hicks is good as Cuny's laidback son Craig; Carl Martin provides comic relief (and a couple of somber moments) as Cuny's childhood friend and erstwhile follower Carl Long; and Lynne-Marie Guglielmi is sexy and charming as Bosnian diplomat Sonja Vukotic, who was Cuny's last girlfriend. George Jack is quite effective as ubiquitous (and increasingly irritating) Reuters correspondent Kurt Schork, and Mitchell Butts gives a chilling performance as a murderous Chechen interrogator who thinks Cuny is a spy.
Vance, Guglielmi, Martin, Jack, and Butts all play multiple roles; and they do quite will in differentiating their various characters. The problem for the audience is, there are just too many characters, and too many countries, and too many disasters to keep straight without a scorecard.
The minimalist set by scenic designer Bill Rodgers and the artful illumination by lighting designer Matthew Adelson help create just the right dramatic atmosphere for this ripped-from-the-headlines drama to unfold. With a just little more character development (and clearer differentiation of character and country and disaster), this promising biographical drama will set audiences on fire.
Second Opinion: The May 29th News & Observer review by correspondent Roy C. Dicks: http://www.triangle.com/calendar/theaterreview/story/1283487p-7405297c.html; and (starting tomorrow [6/2/04]) the June 2nd Front Row Center review by Alan R. Hall: http://hometown.aol.com/theonlyarhall/reviews.html and the June 2nd Independent Weekly review by Byron Woods: http://indyweek.com/durham/current/woods.html.
Burning Coal Theatre Company presents The Man Who Tried to Save the World Thursday-Saturday, May 27-29 and June 3-5 and 10-12, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, May 30 and June 6 and 13, at 2 p.m. in the Kennedy Theatre in the back of the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 ($13 students, seniors 65+, and active-duty military personnel), except $50 June 5th annual fundraiser. 919/834-4001, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit http://www.burningcoal.org/tickets.htm. Note 1: The June 6th Sunday matinee performance will be free, and it will be followed by a special symposium sponsored by North Carolina Humanities Council, with Drs. Gerald Suhr and Alex DeGrand of North Carolina State University's Department of History leading an Audience TalkBack sponsored and conducted by the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) immediately following the performance. (The IAEM will also set up an information booth in the theater's lobby for all performances.). Note 2: The June 5th performance is Burning Coal's special annual fundraiser, with all tickets priced at $50, which includes wine and heavy hors d'oeuvres, starting at 6:30 p.m. Burning Coal Theatre Company: http://www.burningcoal.org/. PBS Frontline Special on Fred Cuny: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/cuny/.