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A CurtainUp Review
Burn This

Burn This, The Second Cast
Elisabeth Shue  and  Peter Sargaard
Elisabeth Shue and Peter Sargaard (Photo: Rahav Segev)
This first in the Signature Theatre Company's Lanford Wilson season was supposed to be a limited run but since the show was housed at the Union Square instead of the company's Forty-Second Street home, an extension was possible if the demand was there. It was, and when Ed Norton and Catherine Keener left Elisabeth Shue and Peter Sargaard took over the roles of Anna and Pale. Ty Burrell continues as Burton, while Dallas Roberts stays as the witty Larry. So now, that the new leads have settled into their parts, the press has been invited to check them out. To transpose former Mayor Koch's famous question, How're they doing? Do the sparks between them spark? Do they interact well with the other two actors?

Sarsgaard and Ms Shue must, for the most part invent themselves in the shadow of their predecessors' superb performances. Sarsgaard, who is not known to this reviewer, may skimp a bit on Norton's menace, but manages to carry his own weight. When he appears inconsistent, it is more Wilson than Sarsgaard at work. He is most effective with Ms Shue, who carries herself as less damaged goods than Ms Keener, whose bitterness at times appeared overwrought. Shue is a marvelous stage actress, and brings a welcome dimension of intelligence to this role. James Houghton's delicate touch is present everywhere. This revival, well reviewed by Jerry Weinstein, continues to pack a wallop, while not quite having the expected punch.
-- seen at the December 15th press preview and reviewed by David Lohrey.

December 18 Update: The open run has now become a limited run -- with a December 29th closing date.


--- Jerry Weinstein's Review ---
Make it personal, tell the truth and then write Burn This on the bottom. --Burton
Catherine Keener and Dallas Roberts
(Photo: Susan Johann)
Earlier this year the Roundabout Theater Company gave us Edward Albee's All Over with Rosemary Harris dowager to a Camelot-esque clan, as they baste in dread, beside the deathbed of their patriarch. Lanford Wilson's Burn This examines not the loss of a father, but of a son cut down in his prime, and tragically, unknown to his family.

Although the Signature's revival of Burn has been retrofitted to include the tropes of the modern era -- cell phones, references to Miatas, and stalks of Lucky Bamboo on the window sill -- the realistic downtown Manhattan loft space is haunted by 1987, as well it should be. Back then, the play reflected an all too common tragedy of its time - young men who died of AIDS, estranged from, and strangers to, their own families. This contemporary staging ignores this historical context, erasing what Burn was meant to eulogize.

Anna, a choreographer, has just returned from the funeral of her roommate and best friend, Robbie. Anna is steeped in rage over the senseless tragedy of his death; she is even more dumbfounded by his family's incomprehension of Robbie's place in the world. Back in her loft, Anna grieves in the company of Larry, her third roommate, and in the arms of Burton, her screenwriter boyfriend. Robbie's death has left a big pothole in Anna's life, but she is coping and filling it with work. Without warning, Robbie's older brother Jimmy ("Pale" to his friends and enemies alike) crosses the bridge from Jersey, hoping to retrieve his brother's effects. He is stinking drunk, obscene, an irresistible object to Anna's immovable force. They are comically dissimilar; he despises the Downtown world that she is from -- a world that he is convinced killed his brother. While Anna is comfortable in discussing "sculptural space," Pale is a gun-toting restaurant manager whose life is a forced march to a bleeding ulcer. Yet their shared pain over Robbie is enough to metastasize into a bond. Anna resists her attraction to Pale, channeling her "inappropriate" feelings into her work -- which manifests itself as a dance piece, Pale & Anna.

Burn This succeeds on several levels. At risk for being Hollywood's go-to girl when a man-killer castrator is being cast (Being John Malkovich, SIMONE, Full Frontal), Catherine Keener's New York stage debut gives her the opportunity to play not only toughness, but frailty and tenderness. Her scenes with Edward Norton are intimate (even in the 499-seat Union Square Theater), emotionally honest, and evanescent. Norton effortlessly transports an agile mania, shown to great effect in film (Primal Fear, Fight Club, and American History X), to the stage. Here he is taut, showing a fine comic timing in the face of desperation. Norton's charisma is evident in his tumultuous monologues, but he does not quite manage the corrosive, sensual animal magnetism the role demands, giving us a whiter shade of Pale. Dallas Roberts, as Anna's foil, confidante and roommate, has his moments of poignancy; he is doing the absolute best with a role that, even in 1987, must have felt as dated as The Boys in the Band. Certainly, he surpasses quota where camp is concerned, tossing off some of the play's best lines. When branded an opera queen he retorts, "I'm not an Opera Queen, Burton. I've seen opera queens, and believe me, I rank no higher than lady-in-waiting." Ty Burrell, as Anna's taken-for-granted Burton, is earnest and stolid.

While the second act is too long by half, the direction by Signature company founder James Houghton is economical and spare, as is the lighting -- a chiaroscuro of sorrow and twilight. But whereas I expected fire in Burn This, there are only lingering embers of regret.

After Burn This completes its ten-week run at the Union Square, the Signature's season of Lanford Wilson continues at its regular home, the Peter Norton Space on Forty-Second Street. Other plays scheduled are a revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Talley's Folly and two NYC premieres, Book of Days (10/15-12/8) and Rain Dance.

Burn This
Written by Lanford Wilson
Directed by James Houghton
Cast: Ty Burrell, Catherine Keener, Edward Norton, Dallas Roberts
Set Design: Christine Jones
Costume Design: Jane Greenwood
Lighting Design: Pat Collins
Sound Design: Robert Kaplowitz
Original Music: Loren Toolajian
Running time: 3 hours with one 15-minute intermission
Signature Theater Company at the Union Square Theater, 100 E. 17th St. (Park Avenue S. & Broadway, Northeast corner of Union Square) 212/505-0700 or their web site (http://www.signaturetheatre.org/)
Tuesday - Saturday at 8pm; Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday at 3pm through November 3, 2002-- $65

Reviewed by Jerry Weinstein based on the September 15th performance.
The strong box office, led to an extension with - Peter Sarsgaard and Elisabeth Shue replacing Edward Norton and Catherine Keener.
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