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Theatre in Review: Burn This (Hudson Theatre)

Adam Driver, Keri Russell. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

Because the male lead role is catnip to young actors looking for a tour de force, Burn This most likely will always be with us, but there's no getting around the fact that Lanford Wilson's 1987 play is one of his minor works. And, in this production, it's looking rather long in the tooth. In fact, it's something of a puzzlement: A play routinely advertised as being a sizzling, dangerous, highly erotic drama is really an old-fashioned boulevard comedy, spiked with some trendy-for-the-time elements plus a soup├žon of drama. A collection of pleasant, if largely noncombustible, elements, it is built around a romance of opposites so forced as to beggar belief. It also feels wildly out of sync with the #MeToo moment. Will female theatregoers in 2019 still thrill to the allure of a lost-soul bad boy who crashes into the life of Wilson's heroine, dragging his train-wreck personal life behind him?

The lady in question is Anna, a former dancer now trying to make her mark as a choreographer; at the moment, she is grieving the loss of Robbie, her creative partner, who died, along with his lover, in a freak boat accident. Adding to her trauma, Anna has just returned from Robbie's hometown funeral, where she had to face his legion of know-nothing relatives, none of whom suspected he was gay. She has an attentive lover in Burton, a wealthy, slightly feckless screenwriter, and a friend in Larry, her wisecracking roommate, but, clearly, Robbie's death was a blow to both her personal and artistic lives.

The first scene of Burn This confirms the fact that any Wilson play is filled with good conversation. Anna recalls how, panicked by their lack of understanding, she began playing up to Robbie's relatives, pretending to be his girlfriend. And, having missed the bus back to New York, she was mortifyingly forced to bunk with Robbie's nephew, a perfect little horror who pinned to his bedroom walls a legion of not-entirely-dead butterflies. There's also Larry's disgusted description of the coffin as looking "like a giant Spode soup tureen," and Burton's assertion that "movies are some banker's speculation about how American adolescents want to see themselves that week."

Still, Burn This is a fairly static affair until a knock at the door signals the entrance of Pale, Robbie's older brother, who has come to collect the dead man's effects. Of course, it is a month after the fact, it is five in the morning, and he is so boozed- and coked-up that he can't stop prowling the room, barking out orders, instantly shifting moods, and generally behaving like a nervous breakdown in progress. In the form of Adam Driver, he is a hulking presence in an Italian suit, with a nose that looks like it had an unfortunate run-in with a garden rake, and a weirdly androgynous haircut. He rattles on in long, profane rants, spewing disgust ("I mean no personal disparagement of the neighborhood in which you have your domicile, honey, but this street's dying of crotch rot"), changing subjects in mid-sentence, finding a new object of scorn every fifteen seconds -- his shoes, the heat, New York potholes, the garbage scow seen through the apartment window, and whatever else happens to pass through his mind, all in language that would make David Mamet blush. He is feral, furious, and utterly deaf to the feelings of others. He also looks like he is about to blow at any moment. His drinking, pacing, acrimonious talking jag continues until, overcome with grief, he falls on all fours, sobbing.

You may be wondering why Anna admits this near-stranger -- she saw him once earlier, at the funeral - given his filthy mouth and undisguised hostility when he pounds on her door. (The script tries to wave this away, noting his resemblance to Robbie, but really.) It's even harder to explain why, after two minutes of his uncontrolled behavior, she doesn't discreetly call 911. But even if you can buy these two developments, you may be stumped by the fact that, at the end of this scene, she takes this basket case into her bed. The rest of Burn This is dedicated to the proposition that this apples-and-grenades pairing is based on their untamable passion and is somehow so right for both of them.

If you can believe that, I have a stack of Barbara Cartland romances to sell you. The play theorizes that Anna, who is too tightly wound and living a passion-free existence with Burton (who attends to her like a very well-groomed puppy) somehow needs the sheer seismic excitement of passion with Pale, who spells trouble in every possible language. In addition to his other unlovely qualities, he is a workaholic restaurant manager who exists on booze, coke, and three hours of sleep a night; he keeps company with lowlifes and, quite possibly, the mobbed-up; and he has a wife and kids tucked away in Coral Gables, where he can faithfully ignore them. ("Lived with that bitch sixteen years, all we ever do is yell, never touched her once," he says. "Never felt nothin' for her." There's relationship material for you.) In a way, Driver's performance is too honest: If one were ever going to buy the idea of an Anna-Pale romance, the character would need a stylized comic slant, a hint that underneath the high-volume carrying-on is a more vulnerable soul (which, arguably Edward Norton provided in the 2002 reviva); Driver, refusing to ask for the audience's sympathy, renders the character in all his stark colors. Trouble is, after ten minutes you wonder why Anna simply doesn't deck him.

If Driver endows Pale with a force-of-nature personality equal to John Malkovich in the original production, the rest of the cast provides quieter pleasures. Anna is a singularly unrewarding role -- she spends unconscionable amounts of time standing around, looking passively appalled, while Pale wreaks havoc, but at least Keri Russell, despite her ethereal looks, endows the character with a steely intelligence that hints at a more formidable character than the script provides. (Interestingly, we learn little or nothing about her past.) Fatally, however, any chemistry with Driver fizzles, rendering their growing attraction something of a head-scratcher. We're meant to feel for Pale because he is eaten up with grief over Robbie, but Wilson never provides the tiniest evidence that the brothers were more than strangers. Pale is, I guess, meant to be the ultimate dream bad-boy lover; in reality, he is more like a rescue animal, in need of a veterinarian rather than a girlfriend.

The other men in Anna's life provide some definite pleasures. David Furr, with his slightly unctuous voice and the face of a basset hound after a spa treatment, makes Burton into exactly the handsome, stolid, reliable, and fundamentally unexciting boyfriend that Anna believes she wants. He does very well by a monologue in which he describes a youthful sexual encounter on a wintry street, a reminder of the time when he did things just for the hell of it, and his distress when he realizes that Anna has slipped through his fingers is authentically touching. Larry is one of the original gay-best-friend roles, basically neutered and in place to provide color commentary on Anna's romantic life -- and, later, to play Cupid for her and Pale. Still, he has the best lines, and Brandon Uranowitz makes the most of them, whether advising Anna about Burton ("I don't know why you don't just marry him and buy things"), offering stray bits of wisdom ("Have you ever been to a gay New Year's Eve party? The suicide rate is greater than all of Scandinavia combined"), and quoting his favorite lines from the Divine-Tab Hunter film epic, Lust in the Dust. If, at times, Uranowitz seems to have wandered in from an episode of Will and Grace, well, remember that Wilson got there first.)

Overall, Michael Mayer's direction emphasizes the script's comic side, which keeps the audience entertained while never quite addressing the prickly problem of its central romance, (Special mention should be made of the fight director, J. Steven White: Under his guidance, the knock-down-drag-out between Pale and Burton is thoroughly convincing.) There's plenty to love about Derek McLane's stunning lower-Manhattan loft set, which, thanks to its wall of windows, allows lighting designer Natasha Katz to fill the stage with lovely time-of-day looks. If some of Clint Ramos' costumes -- especially those for Larry and Pale -- make one wince a little, that's what so many of us wore way back when. David Van Tieghem's sound design combines such effects as banging pipes and answering machine messages with evocative musical cuts from the period, like Patti Smith's "Because the Night." (Did no one think of Soft Cell's cover of "Tainted Love?")

Would that the affair of Anna and Pale felt nearly so real. Near the end of Burn This, the lovers, on the couch, fall into a kiss. "I don't want this," Anna says, before giving way to him. It's the first thing I believed all night.-- David Barbour

(19 April 2019)

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