Can a Star Wars villain and a Soviet spy find love, sex and happiness together on Broadway?
That’s the question we’re primed to ask in the first Broadway revival of Lanford Wilson’s 1987 play Burn This, thanks to the steamy poster of the show’s stars Adam Driver and Keri Russell.
There is little question that the revival is designed to draw in the fans of these two actors, both of whom are known primarily for their screen roles – Russell (who’s making her Broadway debut) as Soviet agent Elizabeth Jennings in the FX TV series The Americans; Driver, who gained fame as Hannah’s boyfriend Adam in the HBO TV series Girls and whose rising movie career includes an Oscar nomination for BlacKKKlansman and tours of duty as Kylo Ren in the latest Star Wars movies.
Fans of Lanford Wilson, however, might question the choice of Burn This as the first posthumous Broadway production of a playwright whose dozens of plays include the Pulitzer-winning Talley’s Folly.
All production photos at NewYorkTheater.me
That Pale and Anna are destined for an explosive connection is apparent from the moment Pale bursts into Anna’s loft in the middle of the night, angry and foul-mouthed, cursing out a driver who tried to take his parking spot.
“I’m sorry,” Anna says politely, “do I know you?”
Pale, as it turns out, met Anna at the funeral of his younger brother Robbie. He’s come to pick up his brother’s belongings. Anna lived in this loft with Robbie, who died in a freak boating accident while on vacation with his lover Dom. Anna was also Robbie’s dance partner, so she has been taking the loss especially hard. As she tells both her other gay roommate Larry (Brandon Uranowitz) and her casual boyfriend Burton (David Furr), she was numbed and overwhelmed during Robbie’s funeral when she met his large family. She was aghast that none of them had ever seen Robbie dance, and none seemed to know he was gay. They assumed Anna was his girlfriend, and she tried to play along.
Pale is crude and impulsive. He’s vague about what he does for a living, and carries a gun. He drinks a lot and gets high. He’s also homophobic. He doesn’t so much talk as rant and riff. “You have completely mastered half the art of conversation,” Anna tells him wryly. She thinks he’s obnoxious, and dangerous.
But he also physically resembles his brother, and, despite his tough guy manner, he sobs uncontrollably, grieving for him. We learn that there are more depths to him, and less danger, than it at first appeared. Still, despite her better judgment, Anna is drawn to him in that first encounter, and in subsequent scenes. Neither Larry nor, of course, Burton approve, and there are dramatic confrontations.
There are entertaining moments in Burn This, especially when Driver takes Lanford’s vivid, wily language and goes to town with it. At one point, Anna tells Pale she’s sorry. He dismisses her apology by comparing her “sorry” to a roll of toilet paper, the saddest use of paper, and then riffs on better uses of paper – music, ten dollar bills, a movie script…”tree over there is going to be in some four-star restaurant, they’re gonna call him parchment, bake pompano in him.”
Russell’s role is to listen to all this. Perforce, it is far less juicy; she has to mope a lot, and also convince us that she’s swept up in Pale’s brute energy, a Stella to his Stanley. She can’t help but be upstaged by Driver – and by Uranowitz, in an overly familiar role as the unattached witty gay friend.
Since homosexuality and homophobia run throughout the play, albeit obliquely, it is worth noting that, for whatever reason, the play ignores something essential about the period in which it is set – 1987, which was “the present” when Wilson wrote it and when it ran on Broadway starring Joan Allen and John Malkovich. That year, Liberace died of AIDS, Larry Kramer founded ACT Up, and 68 percent of respondents in a Gallup poll called AIDS “the most urgent health problem facing the world.” Yet the gay couple die in a boating accident?
This from a playwright, gay himself, who seven years earlier, in his play Fifth of July, created a protagonist who was a gay, paraplegic Vietnam veteran.
Burn This might have worked better if the focus were more sharply on the emotional duet, without scenes that now feel extraneous or dated. Perhaps it would have felt breathless at 90 minutes, instead of 150 minutes (including intermission). Natasha Katz’s lighting design is wonderful, allowing us to glimpse the minute gradations of light and weather over downtown Manhattan through the floor-to-ceiling window of the loft. But the surely unintended consequence is to make us hypersensitive to the passage of time. I’m surely not the only one who started staring out the window.
Whether or not this was the right vehicle for Adam Driver and Keri Russell, it looks as if this won’t be the last one. They’re both cast in the forthcoming Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
Burn This is on stage at the Hudson Theater (145 W 44th Street, between Broadway and Sixth Avenue, New York, NY 10036) through July 14, 2019
Tickets and details
Burn This by Lanford Wilson, original music by David Van Tieghem . Directed by Michael Mayer; Scenic Design by Derek McLane; Costume Design by Clint Ramos; Lighting Design by Natasha Katz; Sound Design by David Van Tieghem; featuring Adam Driver as Pale, Keri Russell as Anna, David Furr as Burton, Brandon Uranowitz as Larry. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.