'Burn This': Theater Review

Matthew Murphy
Adam Driver and Keri Russell in 'Burn This'
Ignites and smolders, though the smoke doesn't linger.
7/14/2019

Adam Driver and Keri Russell play seemingly incompatible strangers drawn together by grief into a combustible romance in Lanford Wilson's drama of complicated passions.

When Adam Driver barrels onto the stage as the coked-up restaurant manager Pale in Burn This, he doesn't just give off sparks, he threatens to explode, blowing out the full wall of industrial glass windows in designer Derek McLane's converted Lower Manhattan warehouse set. It's no mystery why Keri Russell's exponentially more composed dancer Anna would be both frightened and mesmerized by the twitchy stranger who has burst in on her, railing about the trials of finding parking on potholed New York City streets, the invasiveness of phone messages and, in one particularly spectacular aria, the meaninglessness of polite interjections like "I'm sorry." As stage entrances go, it's a stunner.

In a performance of astonishing physicality that marks an exciting return to the New York stage after a seven–year break, Driver maintains that dangerous energy throughout the production — whether the feral intruder is reeling about the room in a drunken stupor, doubled over with racking sobs of grief or warily surrendering to an emotional involvement he can't control.

With his rangy frame clad in big-shouldered '80s suits and voluminous satiny shirts that indicate more amusing vanity than taste, Pale quite literally fills the stage. Even the heat he gives off is palpable. "I got like a toaster oven I carry around with me in my belly someplace," he says, and we feel it. Driver has an in-the-moment presence that's almost scary.

It's a credit then to the luminous Russell and the two fine supporting actors in director Michael Mayer's slick revival that nobody gets swallowed up in Pale's vortex of bubbling testosterone. Lanford Wilson's 1987 pas de quatre, to borrow a term from the play, remains a compelling account of love as a headlong plunge into the unknown, a risky jeté out of the ashes of sorrow and the stupor of safety into pulse-quickening passion. But in choosing to dial up the humor, Mayer has undercut the anguish that is the drama's foundation, exposing Burn This as just a circuitous journey to an inevitable romantic conclusion.

Or maybe it's simply the dispiriting context of the times. The dramatic springboard of Burn This is the death in a boating accident, before the action begins, of a celebrated dancer and his male lover. When Wilson — an openly gay playwright in the Tennessee Williams tradition, whose work frequently encompassed explorations of queer identity — wrote the chamber piece, the scourge of the AIDS crisis loomed large. That factor no doubt added depth to the acclaimed premiere production, which starred John Malkovich as Pale and Joan Allen as Anna. Similarly, the 2002 off-Broadway revival, with Edward Norton and Catherine Keener, tapped into the lingering aftershock of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

While New York, and much of the rest of the country, is currently seized by another kind of paralysis, it's one of political disgust more than human heartache, which doesn't exactly feed into the pain at this play's core.

Still, this is a dynamic production that, if nothing else, illustrates in every one of Pale's spiraling rants why it's long been such a bountiful source of muscular audition pieces for young male actors. He's the more articulate 1980s answer to Stanley Kowalski. His diatribe about the entire forests consumed by pieces of paper printed with pointless words is a classic.

The play opens with Anna alone in the living space that doubles as a dance studio, wrung out from the funeral of Robbie, the brilliant young dancer who was her roommate, friend and the muse for her transition into choreography. With the arrival of her successful, handsome screenwriter boyfriend Burton (David Furr), and the return from the grocery store of her other gay roommate, Larry (Brandon Uranowitz), she shares the ordeal of being stuck at the wake with Robbie's blue-collar family. Treating her like the bereaved girlfriend, they either knew nothing about his unhidden sexuality or declined to acknowledge it; none of them seemed ever to have seen him dance professionally.

After more than a month of Anna leaving messages for Robbie's family to come pick up his belongings, his older brother Jimmy, known as Pale, shows up unannounced one day at 5 a.m., his homophobic comments seeming to compound the family's detachment from the dead man's life. He punctuates his volatile fulminations on random subjects with blunt questions about his brother and increasingly personal observations about Anna, before giving way to his grief in a heaving release of raw sorrow.

Anna is both startled by and attracted to Pale's volatile mix of untethered rage and painful sensitivity, and he reciprocates her interest. "I'm getting all riled up," he tells her, as their long first scene together becomes a kind of accidental seduction, shaped by forces outside them both. "I got no place for it."

Russell's performance is contrastingly contained next to Driver's often very funny fireworks. She's the cool, guarded yin to his hot, unfiltered yang. But she holds her own, bringing emotional authenticity and quiet yearning to Anna's gravitational pull between Pale's animal-esque spontaneity and Burton's self-possessed stability. And Furr smartly keeps a tight lid on wealthy Burton's bourgeois privilege, even if the writing's characterial juxtaposition of the two men borders on the schematic.

But even though Mayer has tightened the play from three hours in earlier productions down to a punchy two-and-a-half, it lacks the thematic resonance to deliver anything much beyond a magnetically performed love triangle. That's partly because Robbie's ghost is never vivid enough to truly haunt the characters; his loss quickly fades, diminishing the play's melancholy undertow.

The title derives from Burton's observation that art has to come from someplace within: "Make it personal, tell the truth, and then write 'Burn this' on it." Anna takes that guiding principle to heart in an unseen dance piece that channels the electric charge pulling her and Pale together. But really it's Larry, the unattached, wryly humorous sideline commentator, whose selfless gesture ultimately facilitates their anxious union.

In Uranowitz's warm, wise performance, Larry seems the character most representative of playwright Wilson, who died in 2011. Whether joking around his desire for unattainable dreamboat Burton or responding to the undeniable connection between Pale and Anna, the friend Larry loves, he suggests layers far more complex than his shell of campy self-irony would indicate. (His hilarious account of a trying family Christmas in Detroit and an even more trying flight home is priceless.) In fact, one of the production's more poignant moments is the expression that plays across Uranowitz's face when an inadvertently tactless remark from the wounded Burton makes Larry question what he's doing amid the messy ménage. The self-denial of his loneliness, in that brief moment, cuts deeper than anyone's.

Venue: Hudson Theatre, New York
Cast: Adam Driver, Keri Russell, David Furr, Brandon Uranowitz

Playwright: Lanford Wilson
Director: Michael Mayer
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Clint Ramos
Lighting designer: Natasha Katz
Sound designer: David Van Tieghem
Fight direction: J. Steven White
Executive producers: Eric Schnall, Wendy Orshan, Jeffrey M. Wilson
Presented by David Binder, Ruth Hendel, Big Beach, Sharon Karmazin, Ohenrigs Productions, Ken Schur, Jayne Baron Sherman, Cynthia Stroum, Barbara Whitman, Richard Willis, Adam Zotovich, The Shubert Organization, Ambassador Theatre Group