Well, here’s a treat if you really miss Adam Driver at his maddest and most threatening and weird as Adam in Girls.
In Lanford Wilson’s Burn This, which opens at the Hudson Theatre on Broadway tonight (to July 14), his character Pale is really messed up, and really physical; the whole stage and theater reverberates when his profanity-spouting, menacing character barrels across the stage.
This well-known 1980s play was written at a time when mad and messed-up men may have seemed like attractive propositions. Now we know better of the damage of tormented souls, and we certainly know about the damage they inflict on others.
Or do we? Alongside me, two young women watching Burn This sighed sympathetically at every one of Pale’s hurt feelings, or when he buried his head in his hands, and did not seem overly put off by the thunderous threat of violence and general upheaval his presence signaled.
Indeed, the play’s preamble promises, “When a mysterious death brings together two unlikely strangers, their explosive connection sparks a chemistry too fiery to ignore.” The play is “a smoldering story of love and raw attraction.”
It doesn't feel like that. Sure, the relationship of Pale and Keri Russell’s Anna is the focus, and we are supposed to think, I guess, that opposites (him, rough, working-class restaurant manager; she, dancer, middle-class) will attract. But he is such a nightmare and so unhinged, you would want him out of your apartment and bed, not in them. Pale may be hot (if seething, verbally abusive hulks are your bag), but he’s also call-911 trouble.
But then the play is set in another time, and Pale’s behavior isn’t the only thing that has aged questionably in the 30-plus years since Burn This was first staged in 1987.
Era-wise, we can visually revel in the downtown Manhattan loft, convincingly rendered by Derek McLane, with huge windows and a view of water towers and roofs; and nothing much in it bar a sofa. The pop music between scenes further situates us, as does Clint Ramos’ typically astute costume design: big dresses, boxy, huge suits, and wackily patterned sweaters.
Cocaine is being snorted, champagne is being drunk, and a few streets away you can totally imagine Glenn Close and Michael Douglas having an even worse-idea romantic liaison.
The deaths that have bought Pale and Anna together is that of Robbie, Pale’s brother and Anna’s dance partner, and his partner Dom in a boating accident. She lives with Larry, a gay advertising executive played by the excellent Brandon Uranowitz, and also in the mix is Burton (David Furr), Anna’s boyfriend, a screenwriter so rich he doesn’t have to work.
Burton is a bland and gilded dollar sign. Russell plays Anna with a breezy self-assurance that obscures a deeper grief and frustrated ambition. She has become Burton’s cheerleader; he is not doing the same for her. (Felicity fans will note, and relish, a line about Anna’s changing hairstyle.)
Wilson was gay, and watching Burn This, the first jarring note in this play is the initial act of gay erasure: the deaths of the unseen Robbie and Dom. Their relationship is barely considered. Robbie himself is hardly mentioned, bar the misty sense of loss of Anna and Larry. We hear more of Pale’s homophobia, which is all “fruit” this and “faggot” that. All unchallenged, of course. And yes, the audience in 2019 laughed at the words, because Pale is a volcanic lunatic, and what’s not to love about a volcanic lunatic who’s also homophobic?
Another kind of gay erasure unfolds in front of us. Uranowitz plays Larry as well as Larry is written. Uranowitz is as funny and piercing as he was in Falsettos; he finds depth with Wilson's scant signposting and is a fine physical performer of pratfalls and eye-rolls. He tells truths about desire, he asks tricky questions.
But Larry is also dismissed in this play; at one key moment, Burton asks him has he thought that he eventually will be rejected and left by Anna.
There are so many odd things about this supposed moment of profound truth. Wilson doesn’t conceive that Larry himself could be happy and settled with someone. Instead, Larry is imagined as bereft and unmoored without his heterosexual friend and flatmate; just another lonely queer.
Larry doesn't say anything in response to this dismissive prophecy. He doesn’t reply, for example, that he and Anna have a friendship that a straight man would never know, and it may be one that may survive all kinds of currents in their personal lives. Larry, as a character, accepts his disposable gay destiny.
Wilson, a gay playwright who is confident enough to write his gay character talking about sex and desire, leaves him stranded. (Wilson wrote other plays with notable gay characters; Lemon Sky, for example, and Fifth of July. He wasn’t in retreat from homosexuality as a theme.)
This critic thought about the year of this play, first performed in 1987: this was a play written in the horror of the first years of HIV and AIDS, cutting such a horrific swathe through what would have been Larry and Anna’s circle, and surely Wilson’s too. And yet, in Burn This, nothing. Is the boat accident a metaphor? Why would such a literal playwright need one?
Burton reveals a same-sex encounter. Maybe in 1987 this would be considered transgressive; here Wilson also tantalizes us with Larry flirting with Burton and, less so, Pale. It feels half-hearted, and this critic noted that every playful flirtation by Larry was met with a gruff disavowal by the nearest heterosexual male.
Gay playwrights are under no license to write exclusively gay-themed plays, but you'd hope for more when it came to writing a gay character.
Similarly, even if one were not watching Burn This with a 2019 cultural filter, the relationship between Anna and Pale feels unconvincing to the point of preposterous. Robbie and Dom feel like meaningful ghosts, displaced by a heterosexual relationship of questionable depth and a gay character testing his own strength of voice.
With such a variety of LGBT voices on stage and screen today, it's easy to forget how scarce (with notable exceptions, like Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart) they still were in 1987.
The actors here make as best sense out of it as they can. Driver looks huge on stage (and if you sit on the left-hand side of the theatre you will catch a glimpse of him in purple briefs as his character steps out in Anna’s purple kimono). He is, as any Girls fan knows, a superior bull-in-a-china shop, but like the other characters, Wilson never successfully signals to us why you would want to spend longer than five minutes with Pale without a prison guard or stun gun.
Wilson does write Anna as questioning Pale’s presence. She doesn’t want him in this apartment, she says at one point. (Yes, you think.) But still he comes back, and she takes him back for reasons best known to the playwright. Even if you accept Anna wants Pale, the play never really explains why; what changed?
In today’s universe, Pale's pursuit might be called stalking; in a play featuring such a character today, one would hope the female object of his attention or at least someone near to them would voice some dissension around his violence, temper, sexism, and homophobia.
Not in Burn This. All Pale has to do is coo one vaguely nice thing, or not be a threatening asshole for 20 seconds, and Anna is putty again. And yes, so were the women next to me. Playing the damaged bird is an effective seduction tactic of the abuser, and Driver-as-Pale plays that damaged, damaging bird extremely well.
As the play ended, this critic thought about another—sadly invisible—play about desire, grief, need, and sexuality standing somewhere off in the shadows, while center stage Burn This stood shakily on its feet, bursting with energy and completely out of time.