Pale face: Edward Norton in Burn This
(Photo: Susan Johann)
Pale face: Edward Norton in Burn This
(Photo: Susan Johann)
The role of Pale in Lanford Wilson's melancholy four-hander Burn This is one for which any thirtysomething actor worth his Actors' Equity card would salivate. Fueled by a couple lines of cocaine, the guy enters fashionably late in the proceedings to interrupt Anna (a dancer-turned-choreographer) and Larry (her gay roommate) in the throes of mourning their late third roommate, Robbie, a dancer of some promise. Pale, the dead man's older brother, uses Wilson's logorrheic speeches as if they were a mop to wipe up the barely finished and sparely furnished Manhattan loft setting.

The highpoint of his fulminations is a tirade in which he likens the anemic apology "I'm sorry" to a flimsy piece of toilet tissue and free-associates from there. "Well, see, fine," he goes off on Anna, who unfortunately uttered the words, "you got these little social phrases and politenesses -- all they show me is this -- like -- giganticness of unconcern with your 'I'm sorrys,' man." A fellow who claims to have a toaster oven in his guts, Pale continues for a heated few minutes, blurting remarks too obscene for a family website. It's a speech that virtually guarantees applause, assuring both thespian and audience that they've just participated in one of those moments that makes theater different from movies or television.

In the original 1987 production, John Malkovich, in a pageboy coif, landed himself on the Broadway map with his formidable histrionics in this role. In the Signature Theatre Company revival, Edward Norton, who has put his stamp on a handful of celluloid psychotics and near-psychotics, has been tapped for the assignment. Funny how the legitimate theater legitimizes: Since screen performances can be shaped from multiple takes and adroit editing, there's always a nagging doubt as to just how good movie actors are, a doubt that is laid to rest only when a Hollywood hotshot comes to New York and puts his reputation on the line.

Like Norton. Even though he's on the Signature board and appeared for the outfit in Edward Albee's 1996 Fragments, this is his chance to convince skeptics that he's got the goods. Norton's Pale, who casually slips a gun from pants pocket to jacket pocket at one moment, has a menace that shifts from comic to frightening and back on a dime. When it's revealed that this New Jersey restaurant manager is volatile because he's acting out grief and guilt over his kid brother's demise, Norton presses all the appropriate tear duct buttons. In his hands, Pale -- the nickname comes from the character's love of V.S.O.P. (Very Special Old Pale) Courvoisier -- is not so much a star-making part as a star-confirming one: Norton's name will be surely be mentioned when awards season comes around.

Almost as much can be said of Catherine Keener, who has been lured from films to make a Manhattan stage bow as Anna. The character, who has been keeping a screenwriter boyfriend named Burton (Ty Burrell) at bay, finds herself simultaneously attracted to and repelled by Pale. She has found in him a living reminder of the late Robbie, but she's also taken by Pale's knotted neuroses. Allowing a sexual liaison to lead to an emotional bond that she repeatedly says she doesn't want, she tries to work through it -- at least partially -- by creating a dance.

Keener buries any questions about her ability to create a full-bodied person on stage. Her Anna is a woman searching for something she has trouble finding -- perhaps because as yet she can't put her finger on what she's looking for. Wearing the stark black outfits and one stunning white peignoir that Jane Greenwood has designed for her, Keener is quietly beautiful. Her long face is ascetic. She employs that beauty and asceticism to advantage.

Norton and Catherine Keener in Burn This
(Photo: Susan Johann)
Norton and Catherine Keener in Burn This
(Photo: Susan Johann)
Dallas Roberts, who plays the swaying-hipped Larry, is at the opposite end of the actor's bio spectrum from Norton and Keener. He has been accumulating an impressive list of stage credits over the past few years, the most notable of them Nocturne. Here, as everybody's acerbic gay friend, he delivers many of the play's laugh lines with aplomb but also is touching in his grief. Ty Burrell as Burton adds presence of his own: He's handsome, imposing, and loose in equal measures. He and his colleagues respond openly to James Houghton's sensitive and lively direction, which is further enhanced by the Greenwood costumes, Pat Collins's atmospheric lighting, and Christine Jones's version of a cast-iron-building loft.

It's no mystery why actors enjoy playing Wilson characters or why audiences like to watch them at it. This dramatist has a knack for bringing recognizable figures to life, and sometimes to something larger than life. Significantly, it's the larger-than-life quality that Pale, Anna, and Burton discuss more than once. Burton, for one, talks of wanting to write scripts about "humongous mega-passion." Pale, asked to itemize things he likes, includes hurricanes and towns in flame. Anna's dance piece is apparently constructed on a grand scale. These references indicate that Wilson himself wants to examine the elements of passion in what is, when all is said and done, a love story.

But whereas he probes this subject successfully in his earlier Tally's Folly, he runs into trouble with Burn This -- the title of which refers to the request often made by letter writers who've committed their most secret thoughts to paper. For all his attention-getting behavior, Pale is inconsistent. He's a man who packs a pistol but fails to use it and eventually loses it. Nor does he do damage to any of the four Champagne flutes that are trotted out and discussed at length. The disappearance of the gun and the safe journey of the flutes toward the final blackout are a metaphor for the terror that Wilson threads into his text but upon which he doesn't follow through. Of course, it's a good idea not to allow events to become predictable; but if a playwright isn't going to give audiences what he's led them to expect, he needs to give them something sufficiently more charged. Moreover, Wilson never convincingly shows us why Anna would ultimately choose Pale over Burton.

With Burn This, it's not the play itself but the players -- and the vital characters they portray -- that catch the imagination of the theatergoer.