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Broadway Reviews

Burn This

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - April 16, 2019

Burn This by Lanford Wilson. 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. Fight director J. Steven White. Cast: Adam Driver, Keri Russell, David Furr, and Brandon Uranowitz.
Theatre: Hudson Theatre, 139-141 West 44th Street between 6th and Broadway
Tickets: Hudson Theatre

Keri Russell and Adam Driver
Photo by Matthew Murphy

There are plenty of sparks and more than a few flames lapping round the revival at the Hudson Theatre of Lanford Wilson's Burn This, about a pair of strangers who become unlikely lovers when they are thrown together in the aftermath of a death. Unfortunately, the fire is largely confined to the unglued coke-addled character at the play's center, enacted with eye-popping abandon by Adam Driver, while the rest of the production appears to be wrapped in asbestos.

Burn This, dating from 1987, takes place in the lower Manhattan loft apartment shared by Anna (Keri Russell) and her gay roommate Larry (Brandon Uranowitz). A third roommate, Robbie, also gay, recently drowned in a boating accident, along with his boyfriend. Robbie was Anna's closest friend; both were dancers and were working together to transition to becoming choreographers. The play takes place during the weeks following Robbie's death as Anna tries to sort things out.

If this all sounds like vapid exposition, that's because that's the way it is presented during the first 20 minutes or so, mostly as Anna fills in the details of the accident and the funeral for her wealthy boyfriend, Burton (David Furr), who's been away and who "has just heard." While Anna is recounting everything for him and for us, Larry periodically pops into the room, says something funny (and let's grant that Mr. Uranowitz does quite well with the one-liners the playwright has given him), and then pops back out. Even though there are more straight lines than jokes, it does all seems like something out of a tepid sit-com, filled with flat dialog spoken by flat characters.

So what a relief it is when in bursts Mr. Driver as Pale, Robbie's older brother, a man whose entire raison d'ĂȘtre appears to be raising havoc and inserting himself into Anna's life and, before much time has passed, into her bed. Anna barely protests, although she can only vaguely recall meeting him among the people she encountered at Robbie's funeral, where his don't-ask-don't-tell family took her to be Robbie's girlfriend.

In Driver's hands, Pale comes off as someone suffering from ADHD and borderline personality disorder who has absorbed a bellyful of booze and a snootful of cocaine: distracted, unpredictable, unnerving, and often quite funny in a truly outlandish sort of way. Whether Anna knows it or not, he is just what the doctor has ordered to break her free of the too-easy, passionless path she's been heading along with the nondescript Burton. Like Anna, I supposed we should just enjoy watching Pale, as if he were a fireworks display. But don't bother trying to understand Pale, who is as likely to rant about everything he hates about New York as he is to pick a fight or burst into tears. He is the embodiment of randomness, as difficult to pin down as an electron in a particle accelerator.

David Furr, Keri Russell, and Brandon Uranowitz
Photo by Matthew Murphy

As a playwright, Lanford Wilson was quite adroit at mining gold from an examination of the lives of a ragtag assortment of characters, in a way that New York Times critic Ben Brantley once described as revealing a "marrow-deep compassion and respect." In Hot l Baltimore, for instance, a play in which you never get to know any individual very well, the writing is so strong it feels like you have been invited to eavesdrop on the characters as they go through their day-to-day lives as denizens of a run-down residential hotel. Who knows where they come from and where they will go once the condemned lodging has been torn down? Yet you walk away with a sense of genuine sympathy for the collective group and their shared circumstances.

Not so with Burn This, or at least not in this production. Wilson's failure to provide anything but the skimpiest details about the characters is made all the more problematic by Michael Mayer's too-light directorial hand. While Keri Russell's Anna shows herself to be sympathetic to the mess of man who has landed on her doorstep, there is little visible heat between them, so that Pale comes off as pushing himself on her when he should be lighting a spark that makes their mutual desire seem more, well, mutual.

Overall, this is a play that is filled with unanswered questions. For me, one of the biggest of these has to do with the circumstances surrounding the death of Robbie and his boyfriend, who is given a name, Dom, but no backstory whatsoever. There is at least a hint that their boat was deliberately rammed by a yacht as they were heading out from "the island," which one assumes is Fire Island. But it all goes by in a mention by Anna, who was supposedly Robbie's nearest and dearest friend. And what to make of Larry, the gay roommate who appears to have no other purpose in life than to be the cheerer-up-in-residence for Anna? There is no question that this is a play and a production that gives its central character a blazing star turn, and fans of the popular Mr. Driver will find plenty to their liking as he roars across the stage like a rabid lion. Regrettably, the others hardly register, making for a frustratingly unfulfilling evening.


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