Adam Driver Keeps the Fire Stoked in Burn This
Lanford Wilson's 1980s comedy gets a Broadway revival at the Hudson Theatre.
Shared grief has a way of drawing very different people together. Lanford Wilson's romantic comedy Burn This, now running under Michael Mayer's direction at the Hudson Theatre, pairs two such individuals, Pale and Anna (played by Adam Driver and Keri Russell), and shows us the all-too-predictable course of the relationship that forms while they mourn the loss of a loved one. Burn This premiered on Broadway in 1987 and won actress Joan Allen a Tony Award. It could do the same for Adam Driver, who provides the flame for a play that, without a star performance, could easily fizzle out.
Anna (Russell playing an emotionally frayed choreographer) has just returned to her New York loft (realistic set design by Derek McLane) from the funeral of her roommate Robbie, a gay, closeted dancer who was killed in a freak boating accident. Their other roommate, Larry (Brandon Uranowitz as a sassy, gay adman), commiserates as she relates her arduous weekend with Robbie's family, to whom she lied repeatedly to cover up Robbie's homosexuality. Anna has a wealthy screenwriter boyfriend named Burton (David Furr playing the epitome of privilege), who lends his perfunctory emotional support. Boring Burton obviously isn't enough for Anna, because when Robbie's brother, Pale (Driver in a primal, ferocious performance), storms into her apartment one day to pick up his brother's possessions, she finds herself falling for him against her better judgment as they mourn Robbie's death together.
Little of what happens next between Anna and Pale will come as a surprise, even as we hope for a twist somewhere along the way. The predictable storyline plays like a mildly entertaining movie of the week, with little depth to justify a two-hour-30-minute run time.
Fortunately, this production features an explosive performance that heats things up. Driver's blazing-hot portrayal of the high-strung, coke-snorting Pale ignites the stage like a force of nature. When he enters Anna's apartment, strafing the room with F-bombs as he rails about the god-awful parking situation in New York and plops his huge lizard-skin shoe on Anna's red Victorian-style couch to tie the laces, we know we're dealing with a formidable character (costume designer Clint Ramos decks Driver in fabulous suits that make the tall actor look even more physically imposing).
Driver's outsize performance does, however, have the effect of dwarfing other characters. The biggest casualty is Russell's Anna, who begins to feel like a minor figure against Driver's Pale — so much so that they never develop convincing chemistry. Russell's restrained performance seems better suited to exploring Anna's relationship with Burton, whom Furr ably depicts as a relatively shallow writer with a surprisingly limited ability to articulate human emotion. But we're never sure that Anna really feels enough fiery passion for Pale for her to give up a wealthy boyfriend — a safe bet for a struggling choreographer, no matter how dull he is.
Uranowitz is the only costar who comes close to matching Driver's memorable performance. As the gay roommate ever ready with a silly, sexually submissive quip, Uranowitz plays Larry strictly for laughs. And he gets them — not always for the right reasons. The character harks back a time when the main function of a gay character was to provide au courant comic relief with stereotypically gay mannerisms that straight folks felt comfortable laughing at. Uranowitz performs the role to a T, but his strong performance ultimately shows how dated the play is.
In the final dimly lit scene (Natasha Katz's lighting suggests a romantic yet appropriately somber mood), Pale and Anna are about where we expected them to be — on a couch in a loft somewhere in the 1980s. It would have been better if Burn This had been left to flicker out there too.