A mother asks her child for cocaine. A couple has sex with their adopted son. Hitler makes an appearance at a memorial. Barely into its first act, Thomas Bradshaw’s Burning makes it abundantly clear that, well, maybe we should have brought our crash helmets to this one.
Burning is an achievement of “You Just Had to Be There” theater but starts with two basic storylines. In the first, show people make love and theatre in the 1980s. The second, set in the present, kicks off as an artist discovers that his work has been misinterpreted. Three hours (and several subplots) later, everyone is interconnected, some in uglier ways than others.
Burning, which is already gaining a reputation as one of those shows spoken of in hushed tones, isn’t a perfect production. It’s occasionally draggy, sometimes out-of-left-field, and spottily performed. But frankly, with everything else going on, it’s easy to not notice. Even more frankly, it’s not the point.
If Burning is imperfect, it’s also frequently gasp-inducing. Stephen Tyrone Williams is a standout as Peter, the artist driven by a desire to keep his race out of the equation. His is a poised, stubborn portrayal, simultaneously pitiful, appalling, and deeply tragic.
Equally central is the always-welcome Hunter Foster as the older Chris. The quartet of Andrew Garman (Jack), Danny Mastrogiorgio (Simon), Andrew Polk (Noah), and Adam Trese (Donald) is best when acting as a kind of affectionately snarky chorus of theater mavens.
Everyone is a vessel here, it seems, present to do some kind of thematic heavy lifting. It seems to be, however, that only the male characters are given actual things to lift. Larisa Polonsky (Josephine), Reyna de Courcy (Katrin), and Barrett Doss (Gretchen) have no such luck, with their characters seeming to exist only to serve some kind of wife-Madonna-whore symbolism. They do what they can with limited material.
Director Scott Elliott stitches the scenes together with mixed results. In Elliott’s hands, Burning sits off-kilter, almost reeling from its sheer thematic weight.Things get pretty real, but this feels like anything but realism. Not that this production doesn’t attempt to trick us into thinking otherwise.
Derek McLane (sets) and Clint Ramos (costumes) provide utilitarian but familiar designs, and the actors make snappy, grounded use of their dialogue. But Burning is a meta-meditation. It knows we’re watching and attempts to show exactly what we’re thinking (or wouldn’t admit to thinking).
Burning is a show with an answer for everything: That moment seemed forced. Maybe that was intentional? Those sex scenes were too numerous and lengthy, but maybe it was just intended to make me uncomfortable. It’s a frustrating piece of theatre because it appears as if it’s attempting to steer opinions. As a playwright, Thomas Bradshaw is an uncompromising force. His work is mercurial and forceful. Drawn in by its wit and familiarity, one finds herself thrust into the center of a journey. Burning frustrates because those footholds don’t come so easily, not when it takes less time to make sweeping generalizations.
To say that Burning is a show that happens to an audience would suggest that the audience has no agency, and that certainly can’t be said of a play or playwright with a healthy history of walk-outs. Instead, just say that the experience of Burning is one that takes a game viewer. It’s in turns confusing, deliberately misleading, frustrating, ghastly, boring, icky, funny, titillating…the list goes on. It’s worth it to treat this one more like a conversation than a presentation.
The point isn’t the delivery of a monologue, or the scene transitions, or the furniture. The point is: art isn’t easy, and neither is Burning. But by engaging with the work, by letting it teach us something and make us feel everything in the book, we maintain our capacity for confronting it, which is what Bradshaw is committed to.