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Burn, Baby, Burn!

A chat with Lanford Wilson on Burn This and the rest of the Signature Theater season devoted to his plays. logo
Lanford Wilson
One of the main attractions of a Signature Theater season is that the playwright whose work is being showcased unveils a new play: Sam Shepard, Arthur Miller, and John Guare are among those who have debuted additions to their oeuvres courtesy of this 11-year-old Off-Broadway company. But keen-eyed observers of this season's line-up, devoted to Pulitzer Prize winner Lanford Wilson, will notice that the pattern has been broken. And the reason is more complex than one might imagine.

Says Wilson, "I haven't written a word -- except for some correspondence -- since last September 8, when I finished my translation of Ibsen's Ghosts [which will be seen at Classic Stage Company this fall, starring Amy Irving]. I am one of the 11.5% of New Yorkers who remain traumatized by the events of September 11," the playwright tells me in between sips of a chocolate milkshake at the Kraft Diner. "I have lived here [and in Sag Harbor] for 35 years and I never, ever felt unsafe in this city. But when I came back into the city for the first time last November, I thought every truck, every building was going to blow up. It has truly changed me something fierce."

Indeed, Wilson acknowledges that Signature artistic director James Houghton "probably picked me for this season hoping it would encourage me to write something new. And perhaps I will feel differently after the first anniversary [of 9/11/01] has passed," he offers. While theatergoers may not get a "new" Wilson work, the season includes two plays that have never been seen in New York: Book of Days and Rain Dance. (The inhabitants of Dublin, MO, the setting of the seriocomic Book of Days, will include Alan Campbell, Miriam Shor, Tuck Milligan, Boris McGiver and Wilson vet Jonathan Hogan). Also on tap is a revival of one of the Talley plays, Wilson's best-known works. Talley's Folly had been chosen for production; now that star Cynthia Nixon has had to withdraw due to her pregnancy, Calista Flockhart has been approached as her replacement. If the Ally McBeal star cannot do it, the company may present Fifth of July instead.

But the main event is the season opener: the first major revival of Wilson's 1987 hit Burn This, currently onstage at the Union Square Theatre. Signature has rented the larger house, way across town from its West 42nd Street home, to accommodate the demand for tickets caused by the show's stars, former Oscar nominees Catherine Keener and Edward Norton. They play Anna, an emotionally withdrawn dancer, and Pale, the volatile brother of her recently deceased roommate, Robbie. (In the original Broadway production, the roles were created by Joan Allen and John Malkovich.) The action unfolds as these two lost souls embark on a potentially dangerous romance. "Basically, Jim Houghton wanted to work with Ed, who wanted to do one of my plays," Wilson relates. "So they went out to California and did readings of Burn This with Ed and Catherine, and of Serenading Louie with Ed and Jennifer Aniston. I wish I had been there for that, I adore her," he says. "Anyway, they decided on Burn This. Sometimes, though, I think they sit there during rehearsal wondering how they got into this and how they can get out!"

Beyond the Pale:
Edward Norton in Burn This
(Photo: Susan Johann)
But seriously, folks: "I think it's going to be a splendid production and I am excited for people to see it," Wilson enthuses. "Ed is a much more sensitive Pale than John Malkovich was and Catherine is very, very good, yet also different than Joan Allen [who won a Tony for her performance]. People who saw the original will be seeing completely different interpretations." Not that the actors are necessarily aware of that, Wilson notes. "I don't think a single person associated with this production -- not the cast, not the designers, not even Jim -- saw the original. So nobody has anything to be intimidated about."

That includes 2002 Drama Desk nominee Dallas Roberts, who is tackling the pivotal supporting role of Larry, Anna's gayer-than-gay roommate (think Jack from Will & Grace times 10). "He is just outrageous, so completely Larry -- and he's not even gay," says Wilson with palpable disappointment. Ironically, when Houghton first suggested casting Roberts, Wilson said he'd never heard of the young actor. Only when the director mentioned that Roberts had done the play Y2K in Louisville did the name click: "I had seen him in that and just flipped for him. So I told Jim, hire him right away before he decides to go do something else."

Had things gone differently, there might have been another basis of comparison for the performances of Keener, Norton, Roberts, et al. In the mid-'90s, Wilson worked on a script for a film version of Burn This for over a year; the late Herbert Ross, a dear friend of the playwright, was planning to direct. "But then we finally did a reading and it was a disaster," Wilson recalls. "It's not that it isn't a good script. I think it is. But, five minutes into the reading, I realized Herb thought it was a comedy with a few dramatic moments, and I thought it was a drama about people with a great sense of humor. I've showed it around but there's been no interest in it. Maybe this production will change that."

Wilson was equally frustrated by his previous attempts to get Book of Days to New York, so he's ecstatic that it will finally arrive this winter -- under the direction of his longtime collaborator Marshall Mason. ("You know, if Circle Rep [the company Wilson co-founded in the 1960s and which produced much of his work on and off Broadway] was still around, the play would've come and gone by now," Wilson remarks.) A complex combination of murder mystery, theatrical satire, and old-fashioned storytelling, set in a cheese factory town in the Midwest, Book of Days won ATCA's Best New Play award in 1999. When it played at Hartford Stage, Wilson thought his prayers for a New York transfer were answered. But he was wrong. "Both Clive Barnes and John Simon came up and loved it. The Times, however, wouldn't come -- they said they'd wait until it hit New York. We explained to them there were no plans for a New York production, but nothing happened. We did have plenty of producers come but they immediately saw a cast of 12, figured in the Broadway costs, and they all passed."

Yet the real problem, Wilson acknowledges, wasn't so much the size of the cast as the fact that the play has no true star part to attract a major celebrity. For this production, the men will be played by Hartford Stage vets, while the women are all newly cast. Wilson is particularly enthralled that Miriam Shor (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the Kennedy Center production of Merrily We Roll Along) has the "lead" role of Ruth, a factory bookkeeper who gets so caught up in her role as Joan of Arc in the town's production of St. Joan that she feels compelled to investigate the mysterious death of the factory's owner.

Anna, too: Catherine Keener in Burn This
(Photo: Susan Johann)
Rain Dance, which concludes the Signature's Wilson season, will be the same production presented by the Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, Michigan. Like Burn This, it concerns a disparate group of people, this time brought together by the making of the Atomic Bomb in Los Alamos, New Mexico. "I am not sure why, but I have been obsessed by the Atom Bomb ever since it first happened," says Wilson. "I hadn't even realized that atomic energy shows up in my other work until I reread Talley & Son. But what bothers me most is that making the bomb in Los Alamos had a major effect on the nearby Native American reservation. While many of the scientists involved have privately acknowledged how important these people were to them and to the making of the bomb, book after book on the subject completely ignores them. So I thought, 'We have got to get them mentioned' -- and Rain Dance does just that."

Should any of these productions wind up having an extended run in a larger venue, that would suit Wilson just fine: He admits that it bothers him more than it used to that he's been absent from Broadway for nearly a decade. His last play on the Main Stem was 1993's Redwood Curtain, and he believes that the show would have had a better reception if David Morse, who originated the lead role in Seattle, had starred here instead of Jeff Daniels. "David's wife wouldn't let him come here because she had just had twins, and the idiot listened to her," he says. "Jeff is just a different kind of animal. He's not scary. David is. When they were doing the play in Seattle, Debra Monk ran into David somewhere and said, 'I know we're working together, but you still scare me.'"

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