Part of the fun of watching Lanford Wilson’s characters in Burn This includes noting their particularity, their measured “normalcy,” their zany, hyped-up incredulity. Concisely directed by Michael Mayer for authenticity and humorous grist, Burn This in its New York City revival drifts, flares up, subsides, then rages. The characters circle each other, collide, implode, retreat with tenuous watchfulness, then boil over, coursing the play to an uplifting conclusion.
What makes this an intricate production is the dynamic of the relationships centered around Anna (Keri Russell) the smooth, sylph-like dancer who evidences a shine for artistic endeavor and the artfulness of restrained love. However, Anna is undone by the haphazard. It comes in the prodigious shape of earthy, sensual Pale (Adam Driver) who like a force-of-nature inflames subterranean passions and blasts her out of her staid romance with Burton (David Furr) and easy routine with gay roommate Larry (Brandon Uranowitz).
After Anna’s one-time sizzling encounter with Pale, unbeknownst to Anna, her elaborately constructed inner psychic protections are shaken to their foundation. Her external “cool” and artistic resolve are broken wide open with the affirmation of life’s most chaotic of emotions which irrevocably will spin her into a relationship with the amazing and sensitive Pale.
At the opening of the play, Larry and Burton reveal their need for the friendship and the attention of the grace-filled and gorgeous dancer, whose nurturing kindnesses and moderate emotional tenor roll up and around marketing whiz Larry, and successful, screenwriter Burton. Anna receives comfort from both men in this expositional scene as they console each other about the loss of Larry’s and Anna’s other roommate, Robbie to an unfortunate accident.
As we listen to Anna and Larry, we understand that Robbie, who was gay, meant a great deal to them. Anna’s anger with Robbie’s family, who refuses to acknowledge that he was gay or that he was a superb dancer (they never saw him dance) spills out in her ironic descriptions of the “relatives,” a Lanford Wilson set up for the next scene and a character revelation of Anna. We understand the easy dynamic among the three. We also note that Anna’s wry comments are her way of coping with Robbie’s loss and indemnifying the narrowness of the family who finds Robbie’s homosexuality unacceptable. The themes of familial rejection and estrangement over gender identity, and emotional disconnectedness with one’s inner feelings are themes that Wilson examines with rigor and truthfulness in Burn This, as he does in his other works.
Keri Russell gives a nuanced and calculated performance in Anna’s scenes with Burton and Larry. In this opening scene, Russell’s Anna modulates her emotions of anger and sorrow as she seeks affectionate relief from lover Burton, and an uplift from the humorous Larry, who comforts with irony and wit.
Larry’s lovably in-your-face gay ironist shares a closeness with Anna garnered during the years he and Robbie roomed with her. The quips and jokes adroitly delivered by Brandon Uranowitz’s Larry snap out and hit the bulls-eye. From his portrayal we understand that Larry speaks from deep within an authentic specificity born out of negotiating his gayness. His timing is excellent. Uranowitz provides the thrum of energy in scenes which, without him, might too readily have slipped away.
The hot-looking screenwriter Burton, a familiar presence in Anna’s and Larry’s NYC loft apartment (the back projection of the rooftops is stunning thanks to Derek McLane’s scenic design) rounds out the easy interplay among the three in the first scene. And as a straight man, Burton provides Larry with joke fodder.
David Furr’s portrayal succinctly conveys an upper level reserve and privilege that sits on the edge of narcissism. But he does retain a a bit of self-effacing humility and for this reason, Furr’s Burton manages to elicit our approval. He knows (perhaps Anna nudges him about this) that he must evolve and become a better “listener.” And for Anna’s sake, Burton reminds her that he is trying.
As two who appear to be the halves of one lovely, perfect whole in the best of all possible worlds, Anna and Burton are the beautiful, artistic, classy, cool couple. Boooorrrring! No wonder Anna is entranced by the strikingly opposite, frenetic, dazzlingly, off-beat Pale, even if he is as high as a cloud on cocaine and whatever else the restaurant manager has plied himself with. Though Anna has encountered Pale who “saves her” from pinned butterflies at his relative’s house after the funeral (you’ll have to see the play to understand the symbolism of this) “he” doesn’t register on her psyche. When he shows up to collect his brother Robbie’s “stuff” at the loft, Anna cannot help but “take him all in!”
Adam Driver’s Pale explodes onto the stage in the second scene. Russell’s Anna never recovers. Neither do we. And that is one of the major thrusts of Mayer’s Burn This. Anna is so swept off her feet (as are most of the men and women in the audience) into the exuberance and thrall of his electric and fiery presence (he has a toaster oven in his belly), she doesn’t know what’s happening. Russell’s portrayal shifts; the nuance mediates then gyrates in the direction of surprise, disbelief and unrestrained engagement. Her gradual evolution as an individual morphs from this point. Wilson’s first scene with Anna, Larry and Burton provides the markers from which we measure her change from then on.
As Pale, Driver’s completely unaffected randomness and moment-to-moment outrageousness are jaw-dropping, in a funny, fabulous way. His unpredictability is life itself. Driver’s emotional portrayal lives onstage with sustained exuberance. Indeed, he resonates like a tuning fork. The magnificence of the vibrating sound thrums deep in our souls and hearts. His presence clarifies a message we need to follow. Be real if you find someone who moves you! (even on cocaine)
Is there such a thing as “love at first sight?” With regard to Anna and Pale, “sight” is the wrong word; perhaps “second sight,” is appropriate. Driver’s Pale is awesome; and Driver as Pale is starkly lovable. The irony is that externally, he cannot hold a candle to Burton. And that is the poetic Lanford Wilson’s second thrust which Michael Mayer’s direction relates with profound realism. Love is ineffable, perhaps irrevocable. It is as blind as the faith required to experience it, especially when you stumble in the darkness unprepared, then crash into it head-on!
After their intimacy Anna and Pale hunger for each other though they remain apart. But no matter. Pale is Anna’s spiritual counterpart, and she is his. Such a bond is not only chemical, it is profoundly healing and revolutionary.
How does Wilson engineer the redemption of these characters who remain separated, even estranged? Larry provides the gateway, manifesting another of Wilson’s themes. Friends (regardless of their gender and sometimes because of it) love and encourage without jealousy or fear of loss. Though this theme seems as obvious as climate change, sadly in the currency of our time, there are the “disbelieving” who find it anathema.
Pale’s and Anna’s love and passion lift them beyond stasis, represented by Burton and Pale’s wife. Their tie seems other worldly, layered with truth and forgiveness. As a result, Pale acknowledges the lost years of his life as he confesses his frailties to Anna and the regrets he has amassed during his failed marriage and fatherhood.
For Russell’s Anna this love has encouraged her artistry onto a different pathway. She has entered into a new becoming. Unrecognizable to herself, unable to contain her emotional kindling fired up by Pale, she acknowledges the inner conflagration, a condition which she has never experienced with Burton. Pale acknowledges he, too, is completely overwhelmed. We understand this is a hard realization for both of them, a glorious disconnect/connect that will continue its wending way however it will. In the play’s last moments, Anna slips into Pale’s arms and life. He reassures her with love endearments, that only someone like Pale can express, and “cries all over her hair.”
Lanford Wilson’s characterization of New York City roommates’ gender diversity, and his themes about the ineffable qualities of love and generosity of friendship was revelatory in 1987, the setting of the play. Mayer’s production with the illimitable Driver, measured, blossoming Russell, with assists from Uranowitz and Furr is equally revelatory for us today. The themes of love, acceptance, the possibility of redemption and growth in this era of Trumpism are vital. They encourage us to retain the social advancements we’ve achieved and to embrace our humanity and decency through the power of non judgmental love and self-forgiveness.
Mayer and the actors and artistic creatives take this startling, understated, emotionally sonorous and uplifting play and make it a resounding success that you do not want to miss, especially for the laughter, the hope and the performances.
Special Kudos go to Derek McLane for scenic design, Clint Ramos, costumes, Natasha Katz for lighting design and David Van Tieghem’s sound design.
Burn This runs with one intermission at the Hudson Theatre (141 W 44th between 6th and 7th) in a limited engagement until Sunday, 14 July. For tickets go to their website by CLICKING HERE.