Dim though my memories were of Lanford Wilson’s Burn This, which I saw in 1987 during its Los Angeles run, watching director Michael Mayer’s tone-deaf revival brought them flooding back. My then 31-year-old self found the play overwrought but sophisticated; I recall also welcoming its frankness, especially in the unapologetic presence of a gay character and related themes.
What I remember vividly is the acting of Joan Allen, Jonathan Hogan, Lou Liberatore, and most of all John Malkovich, in a brilliant tour-de-force. Many of us who saw Malkovich then felt an electric thrill akin to what audiences 40 years earlier thought when they saw Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire: that they were in the presence of something utterly unexpected and great.
Even then, the most interesting aspect of Burn This was how it served as a laboratory for a certain very American kind of realistic acting. The original production—featuring Malkovich and Allen, anchors at that time of Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theatre Company—could hardly have been a more persuasive example of their sovereign level of talent and commitment. Since then, we’ve seen additional superb work from Malkovich and company; Steppenwolf no longer seems quite so unique. Yet back then, it was a revelation.
The other aspect of the show that left a deep impression had to do with its timing and position relative to the AIDS epidemic. It isn’t ever mentioned in the script, but in 1987, it was impossible to watch a play that dealt frankly with gay sexual encounters—and even more, with a general fear of intimacy and its potentially catastrophic aftermath—without filling in the blanks.
Thankfully, that particular resonance is gone now. But without it, Burn This feels formulaic rather than poignant. And Mayer’s production, which careens wildly from shticky comedy (I counted at least three literal pratfalls) to mawkish melodrama, fails entirely to cohere into something we care about.
Instead, Burn This comes off today as a study in privilege. Really, is there any more ludicrous White Person Problem than being mowed down by a yacht, the fate that befalls the unseen but much-lamented young dancer whose death sets the play in motion?
Specifically, it’s the cautionary tale of what happens when a glamorous urbanite—Anna, a gorgeous, size-zero New York woman who Has It All, including a closet full of fabulous clothes (Clint Ramos did the costumes), a spacious loft apartment with a to-die-for view (scenery by Derek McLane), a wealthy movie-biz boyfriend called Burton, and a funny gay friend named Larry—unexpectedly encounters Pale, a vulgar, pulsating hulk from New Jersey, with weird opinions about almost everything.
Great acting might have saved Burn This, but it’s in short supply. Rather than the watching-real-life sense I got from the original company, there’s scarcely a moment here that doesn’t look studiedly arch—“Acted” with a capital “A”.
David Furr fares best as Burton, the pompous but well-intentioned screenwriter boyfriend. Furr can’t raise Lanford Wilson’s writing about film-making beyond cringe-worthy clichés, but at least he brings an understated likeability. More understatement would be very welcome from Brandon Uranowitz, who plays Larry, the gay friend, as a cranked-up TV stereotype.
But the biggest problems come in the two central roles. Playing Anna, a dancer transitioning into choreography, Keri Russell certainly has the physicality, but not much else. Anna begins the play grieving for the death of her beloved friend and roommate—but though the character moves far beyond this moment, Russell’s performance remains gloomy and shut-down. Even describing her artistic vision, she makes it sound more like a job.
Which leaves the mystifying star performance. In Malkovich’s hands, Pale’s long speeches were riveting lighting-rounds of free association. We hung on his every word, pondering the shifts from almost laughably incoherent rantings to profound wisdom, all delivered with such casual insouciance we had to lean in to catch the full magic. Here, Adam Driver—a big presence and clearly a gifted performer—instead parses out each beat for maximum calculated effect. Sometimes whining, often yelling, occasionally sniffling, this is less a character study than a compendium of tricks from the actor’s toolbox.
But I’m not sure that even a far better production could repair the damage done by the passage of time. The final moments of Burn This are taken literally, as a note is set alight in a crystal ashtray. Alas, for Lanford Wilson’s play, the fire went out decades ago.
Burn This continues through July 14 at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre. For more information, visit the website.