Hunter Foster and Vladimir Versailles in Burning
(© Monique Carboni)
Hunter Foster and Vladimir Versailles in Burning
(© Monique Carboni)
It's unclear if Thomas Bradshaw intends his world premiere play Burning, now being presented by The New Group at Theatre Row, to be viewed as satire or melodrama. However, it succeeds as neither.

The tedious work, directed by Scott Elliott, has occasional glimmers of interesting ideas and character interactions, but then sabotages itself by presenting reductive scenes that seem designed to shock and/or titillate audiences with graphic depictions of a wide range of sexual scenarios.

The convoluted plot jumps back and forth between two different time periods, and follows several intersecting storylines. The focus is first placed upon 14-year-old Chris (Evan Johnson), who moves to New York in the early 1980s and is taken in by an older gay couple (played by Andrew Garman and Danny Mastrogiorgio), whose surrogate fatherhood of the boy soon takes on a sexual dimension. Chris also becomes involved with a playwright named Donald (Adam Trese), who has AIDS.

In the present day, a painter named Peter (Stephen Tyrone Williams) travels to Germany for a gallery opening, and rediscovers his identity as an African-American man after a night spent with a black prostitute in Berlin (Barrett Doss), who allows him to do things his white wife (Larisa Polonsky) does not.

We also see the adult Chris (Hunter Foster) as he embarks upon a possible relationship with Peter's teenage cousin Franklin (Vladimir Versailles), and one further plot involves a neo-Nazi brother and sister (Drew Hildebrand and Reyna de Courcy) who are on a collision course with Peter.

There's a lot of exposition needed simply to establish the characters and their relationships to one another, contributing to a nearly three hour running time. But Bradshaw has skimped on the character development, mostly presenting unlikeable caricatures of people rather than providing enough complexity to explain why they do what they do.

It also seems as if the playwright is relying heavily on pornographic tropes to further the action. Nearly all cast members get naked at one point or another, in ways that are not too far removed from the kind of set ups you would likely find in a pornographic film, and involve examples of heterosexuality, homosexuality, pedophilia, and incest. While some of the earlier examples of this create a sense of discomfort that can be dramatically compelling, by the time Peter gets in bed with the prostitute, the trio of elderly women seated next to me at the matinee performance I attended were joking under their breath, "Next!" as the actors' clothing fell to the floor.

The cast is somewhat uneven, with particularly good work from Doss as the prostitute Gretchen, whose non-verbal reactions to Peter's demands speak volumes. Foster and Versailles share a scene in a Starbucks that ratchets up the sexual tension between their characters in a believable and compelling fashion, but the pair's next encounter doesn't have the same amount of conviction.

Meanwhile, de Courcy has great difficulty producing a credible German accent, which mars her performance, and Garman and Mastrogiorgio come across as a little too chipper in their interactions with Johnson's Chris, making that troublesome relationship less effective.

Through his Off-Off-Broadway work, Bradshaw has gained a reputation as a playwright provocateur, and his move to Off-Broadway does not seem to have changed that. Indeed, he has his characters comment on the situation during a reading of one of Donald's plays when that playwright character is told, "Maybe you can do this downtown, but you've got to write differently for an uptown audience."

However, the fact that Bradshaw continues to push boundaries here does not mean that he has created a very interesting play. He simply presents a jumble of ideas that take ironic pot shots at a broad range of subjects but ultimately do not seem to add up to much.

If he has a more substantial critique that he wishes to level, it doesn't come across, and if he hoped to bring everything together in the play's closing moments, that didn't work either. Instead, he presents what seems intended to be a moving final tableau, but instead was greeted at the performance I attended with snickers from several audience members that were not exactly unearned.