Pale, the irascible lord of misrule at the center of Lanford Wilson’s Burn This, describes his normal body temperature as hovering somewhere in the neighborhood of 110 degrees. He means it, too – with all the febrile sweats and pulsing shakes to prove it. For all that talk, the heat level of the current revival at the Hudson Theatre never rises above a bare simmer. Wilson’s 1987 drama seems a calcified artifact by contemporary standards – a feeling that Michael Mayer’s shallow production does little to assuage.
The staging desperately wants to recapture the bygone era when the original production of Burn This ignited Broadway, with blazing star turns by John Malkovich and Joan Allen that smuggled a touch of authentic Steppenwolf energy out of Chicago and into New York.
Yet every choice made by Mayer and his design team (sets by Derek McLane, lighting by Natasha Katz, costumes by Clint Ramos, sound by David Van Tieghem) confirms the play’s relic status. This begins with the parade of cheesy eighties music that assaults the audience as they find their seats and punctuates the many extended scene changes. Would the collection of artists and hipsters who populate Wilson’s world really listen to hair metal and Heart?
Instead of feeling transported, we recognize the proceedings for what they are: a rather desultory effort to recapture the past. Those who saw the original often rave about Malkovich’s spark-plug of a performance, and how he and Allen (playing a choreographer grieving the sudden death of her creative partner) dances a pas de deux infused with immediate, overwhelming danger. The play also debuted at the apex of the AIDS crisis, and although the disease is never mentioned, the story’s inciting event of a young gay man who dies unexpectedly and in his prime can be easily recognized as an allegory for the epidemic.
In 2019, HIV/AIDS has largely transitioned from death sentence to chronic illness. Without that metaphoric poignance, the circumstances surrounding the death of Robbie (the brilliant young dancer) and his lover in a boating accident now comes across as unintentionally funny. As a colleague at the same performance pointed out as we exited the theater, is there anything that sounds more like a first-world problem than being run over by a yacht?
Malkovich and Allen have been replaced by Adam Driver and Keri Russell, a pair of television stalwarts whose small-screen charm and charisma don’t harmoniously translate to the stage. Driver has serious stage chops, though this production represents his first time on Broadway in nearly a decade. Russell has appeared in one prior play nearly twenty years ago. It’s immediately clear that he possesses a level of comfort onstage that she doesn’t.
From nearly her first entrance, aggressively smoking on the floor of McLane’s loft-apartment set, she telegraphs every word she speaks with an oversized gesture, in an attempt to communicate subtext and character choices that should be implied. Her line readings remain monochromatic throughout, with petulance the prevailing emotion. For someone meant to be a dancer, Russell seems largely disconnected from her body, standing in profile or coiling up her limbs whenever possible.
Her character, Anna, yields almost instantly to the magnetism of Pale (Robbie’s brother), yet we never feel a sense of the crushing attraction that would make the conquest believable. Likely unconsciously, Russell’s rather placid performance drives home another unfortunate, dated element of the play: that her character exists only as a repository for male attention or abuse, whether from Robbie, Pale, or her smarmy sometime-boyfriend Burton (David Furr, who’s appropriately repulsive).
In contrast, Driver inhabits his body a touch too fully. Entering in the second scene – and riding a wave of cocaine-fueled kineticism – he flops, flails, and even pratfalls while shouting his lines with bridge-and-tunnel brio. Instead of the threatening, almost demonic presence Pale is supposed to be, Driver comes across like a sitcom goon in a sharkskin suit, a puppy dressed up like a panther. His performance is as artificial as Russell’s – just in a different direction.
That artificiality leads to a production where nary a moment feels authentic or immediate, where Anna is already leaning in to kiss Pale before she’s through protesting how much she doesn’t want to be with him. It doesn’t come across as a sense of abandon – it seems like an actor who miscounted her beats. That sense of arch-affectedness further breeds down to Furr’s otherwise solid characterization of Burton – his long monologue about a same-sex encounter doesn’t shock as it should – and to Brandon Uranowitz’s cloying portrayal of Larry, Anna’s ad-exec roommate. Larry’s presence as a gay-sidekick character must have felt retrograde thirty years ago; today, it’s truly unpalatable, and even more unbelievable coming from an openly gay playwright.
Near the end of the play, Anna struggles to light a match. She strikes the stick against the box several times, to no avail. The gesture serves as an apt metaphor for the play itself. I can imagine a time when Burn This burned brightly and seemed vibrant and fresh. But with a combination of schtick and stock plotting, it barely feels like a flickering ember now.