Can a play lie in wait? Let’s say it can so we can say that it has: Lanford Wilson’s Burn This has been lurking about since 1987 anticipating the arrival of Adam Driver, and for that match-up alone the years haven’t been wasted.
But that match-up alone is very nearly all we get in Michael Mayer’s Broadway revival opening tonight at the Hudson Theatre. And that’s pretty odd, since the production’s other match-up – Driver and his fellow Star Wars: Episode IX compatriot Keri Russell – is the major selling point here, a teaming that’s been scorching subway walls since steamy ads began cropping up earlier this winter.
To say that Burn This hasn’t aged particularly well since ’87 is rather like pointing out a lopsided old house with a badly built foundation needs a paint job – true enough, maybe, but almost beside the point. Burn This‘ flaws have been there from the start – it’s an AIDS play that doesn’t mention AIDS and a love story that demands we take love on faith – but as a vehicle for actors to make a big, showy act of acting, well, it does. Or should.
Getting to the unfortunate point: Russell, so good in The Americans, is just no match for either Driver or the stage. Her performance here is flat, her delivery single-note. Her Anna not only gets overshadowed by Driver’s larger-than-life Pale, but by the stuffed shirt boyfriend whose entire purpose, drawn from decades upon decades of stage convention, is to cast almost no shadow.
And make no mistake: Burn This is nothing if not conventional. Strip away the obscenities and epithets – shocking still, but for entirely different reasons than in ’87 – and the tale isn’t yards from Neil Simon or Philip Barry: An emotionally closed woman has her complacency (and her complacent relationship with that stuffed shirt) upended by the arrival of an uninhibited and very sexy wild card of a man who would have been Cary Grant or Richard Dreyfus in other eras. There’s even a gay best friend who cracks wise (and, as played here by Brandon Uranowitz, cracks wise very, very well indeed).
Set at the height of the AIDS devastation (and in the milieu it was devastating, all without ever making the slightest reference to it), Burn This begins just after the funeral of Robbie, a young gay dancer whose death in a boating accident has crushed Anna (Russell), Robbie’s roommate, best friend and dance collaborator. Anna has just returned from his thoroughly depressing funeral in New Jersey, where his estranged, clueless (perhaps) family has assumed she was his girlfriend.
Back at the Lower Manhattan loft studio (perfectly rendered in ’80s industrial style with second-hand furniture by Derek McLane) that she shares with Larry (Uranowitz), a frustrated advertising writer, and that they both shared with Robbie, Anna is comforted, somewhat, by her comfortable boyfriend Burton (David Furr, excellent), a handsome, wealthy (by birth) sci-fi writer who makes few demands on her and fit in nicely with the loving roommate triumvirate.
Enter Pale (Driver), Robbie’s brash, crude, coked-up older brother who’s come from Jersey to collect some belongings and, most likely, try to make sense of his estranged sibling’s world. Despite Anna’s previous assumption, Pale was well aware of Robbie’s sexuality and none too happy about it – he’s sussed out Anna’s living arrangement with, as he puts it, “the two faggots” around the same time he first slings the c-word at her.
In one of the era’s great, attention-grabbing, actor-announcing entrances, Pale stomps into the loft, dressed in a shiny suit and lizard boots, and lets rip with this breathless, break-neck soliloquy:
Goddamn this f*ckin’ place, how can anybody live in this shit city? I’m not doin’ it, I’m not drivin’ my car this goddamn sewer, every f*ckin’ time. Who are these assholes? Some bug-eyed, fat-lipped son of a bitch thinks he owns this f*ckin’s space. The city’s got this space specially reserved for his private use. Twenty-five f*ckin’ minutes I’m driving around this garbage street. I pull up this space, I look back, this f*ckin’ baby-shit green Trans Am’s on my ass going beep-beep. I get out, this f*cker says that’s my space. I showed him the f*ckin’ tire iron; I told the f*cker, You want this space, you’re gonna wake up tomorrow, find you slept in your f*ckin’ car. This ain’t your space, you treasure your pop-up headlights. Ho-Jo. Am I right? That shit? There’s no talkin’ to shit like that.
Driver delivers the four-letter rant like an aria, beautifully. Later, there are other uglier slurs and insults, though neither Anna nor Larry seem overly offended, certainly not by today’s standards. Audience members entertaining the thought that the roommates should call the police and have the foul-mouthed drunken bigot hauled off might be bound to feel all snowflakey, like we just can’t grasp the politically incorrect passion of those hurly burly days gone by. When Pale sucker punches Burton, well, he didn’t punch Anna, did he? Counts for something, right?
Or does it? Anna and Pale fall into bed so quickly – shared grief, ok, and the red-lights-flashing lust of two Tennessee Williams horndogs – that we know they’re meant for one another, souls meant to break free of inhibition and collide, then collide again, until the goodbye girl says stay.
But here’s where Wilson’s ’80s-era play has aged no better than Donna Summer’s born-again era. Driver, or rather Pale, or, well, no, Driver, is just as sexy as all get out, but showing a girl affection by pummeling her boyfriend and repeatedly calling her beloved friend a fruit just doesn’t seem quite so charming as it once did, and using his towering height and dark, brooding strength to fill a room with dread and fear just doesn’t scream carefree joie de stud that it maybe did in the pre-too era. Aziz Ansari nearly destroyed his career for much less.
So what’s needed? I’d say passion, or at least chemistry. But Russell’s Anna just hasn’t the emotional weight to provide the heft needed for an equal and opposite reaction to Driver’s Pale. She seems no more inescapably drawn to Pale than she was to Burton. Better she had stayed with that rich, handsome, doting stiff. They’d have had a nice little life.