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A CurtainUp Review
This revival of Wilson's Burn This tries hard, very hard. But it doesn't come close to being the provocative, disturbing play it was thirty-two years ago with the advent of the AIDS scare. .
Its faults are not necessarily the fault of director Michael Mayer or the earnest actors who seem to enjoy playing around with it— especially its quaintness regarding gay culture. But more on that later. A bigger part of the problem is the latitude given to film and stage actor Adam Driver in the role that might seem to demand the sort of indulgent, over-the-top, self-serving performance that catapulted John Malkovich to stardom in the original production.
Driver gives his all as Pale, a neurotic, emotionally unstable restaurant manager with a flair for the histrionic. It is the kind of role that would challenge the capabilities of a less commanding or prepared actor. Driver certainly meets the challenge through the sheer force of a portrayal that leaves the others on stage at his mercy. That we in the audience are mercifully only bystanders is a plus.
The play's other star is Keri Russell, who recently concluded a six-year gig in the FX TV series The Americans. She plays Anna, a dancer and choreographer who has just returned to her spacious Lower Manhattan loft apartment after attending the funeral of her gay roommate Robbie, a dancer who drowned along with his lover in a boating accident. Deserving mention is the play's setting - a minimally furnished loft in a cast-iron building in lower Manhattan. As designed evocatively by Derek McLane, we are impressed mostly by the wall of casement windows that stretch the length of the loft and provide a view of the river and later a snow fall.
Having been deeply committed to Robbie personally as well as artistically, Anna is devastated by the sudden loss of her soul mate. Their "special" relationship was presumably fulfilling for Anna on every level except the sexual. Although Anna has a semi-intense understanding with Burton (David Furr), a successful hack screenwriter who snorts cocaine but "wants to write about people smaller than life." Their on-again, off-again relationship is notable for its lack of sparks.
The sparks should begin to fly when Pale, the deceased's heterosexual brother, barges into the loft late that night like a crazed bull into a novena service. More than merely the sexual antithesis of his brother, Pale embodies every detestable, vulgar, and churlish characteristic that should result in Anna's complete rejection. Instead we are asked to believe in his animal magnetism.
Driver flails about the loft in an unfocused rage, punctuating Pale's virtually illiterate tirade on the curses of urban life with an emphasis on the obligatory four-letter expletive. It's hard not to take your eyes off his mangled black hair and glazed eyes. He is sound and fury run amok.
So what is it that Anna finds interesting about him? Is it his hyper-charged physicality as a manipulator, as a liar and as an immature man-child?
It soon becomes obvious that he wants to seduce and dominate Anna in the way his brother never could? I gather that this is what gives the play its drive. We also see his behavior in the light of Anna's psychological need to use Pale as Robbie's proxy.
Russell tries valiantly to offset Driver's well-calculated up-staging with a more nuanced performance carefully mannered to convey their relationship in only the shallowest and still possibly the broadest of terms— more likely the fault of the play rather than a mostly submissive Russell. There is a lot of talk about latent and blatant homosexuality, destinies, careers and parking one's car in Manhattan.
It is interesting that the playwright made the play's most peripheral character its most curious anchor — Larry (Brandon Uranowitz), an advertising man. Larry is Anna's remaining gay roommate. Only obliquely involved, he is the play's tiresomely witty observer and commentator.
Larry presumably acts as purifier and guide to the murky passions before us. Interestingly, when he recalls some trite dialogue from the film Lust in the Dust, the play suddenly generates the embedded sensuality for which it has been striving.
It's with hesitation that I mention that Burn This is indeed dated in many ways but it still can serve as a challenging vehicle for any actor willing to burn its smoldering embers into the ground. Through the grapevine I hear that director Mayer has had Burn This on his wish list for a long time. We are pleased he has gotten it out of his system —but at our expense.
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Burn This by Lanford Wilson
Directed by Michael Mayer
Cast: Adam Driver (Pale), David Furr (Burton), Brandon Uranowitz (Larry) Keri Russell (Anna)
Sets: Derek McLane
Costumes: Clint Ramos
Lights: Natasha Katz
Running time: Appox. 2 hours with a 15 minute intermission Hudson Theatre 141 West 44th Street
From 3/15/19; opening 4/16/19; closing 7/14/19 Reviewed by Simon Saltzman 4/13/19
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