By Robert Heide
The new Broadway revival of Lanford Wilson’s play Burn This, which was originally produced in 1987 also on the Great White Way, opened April 16 at the Hudson Theatre at 141 West 44th Street for a 17 week run. Back then it was Wilson’s first play to open on Broadway and it made a star of John Malkovitch who gave a vivid stellar performance as the incendiary character known as ‘Pale’ with the strong, Tony winning actress Joan Allen as Anna, a conflicted, neurotic modern dancer with up and down mood swings. Marshall Mason was the director who helped turn the play into a big Broadway hit. A startling, forthright work, Lanford Wilson (1937-2011) said it all came to him in a high ‘kukaya’ state of anxiety. The term ‘kukaya’—to mean crazy—was often used by Joe Cino, the proprietor of the now legendary and first off-off Broadway coffee-house theater where Wilson’s early plays were produced, usually under the direction of Mason. Wilson’s most successful play at the tiny theater on Cornelia Street was The Madness of Lady Bright and it focused on an older burnt-out-crazed gay man in the throes of a full nervous breakdown identity crisis.
Other Wilson works at the Cino included Ludlow Fair and one of his masterworks, This Is The Rill Speaking. Later plays at Café La MaMa, the lower East Side theater founded by Ellen Stewart and Paul Foster, included the crowd pleaser Balm in Gilead and Rimers of Eldritch. Plays that were presented in the Village at the Cino and others at La MaMa were sometimes interchangeable from one place to the other. The off-off Broadway movement of Cino/La MaMa were the two places that spawned writers like Sam Shepard, John Guare, Tom Eyen, Jean-Claude van Italie, Doric Wilson, Robert Patrick, William M. Hoffman, Leonard Melfi, Michael Smith (also the Village Voice critic for 14 years), Jeff Weiss, H. M. Koutoukas and many others. My own early plays The Bed and Moon were first presented at the Caffe Cino and my hit play Why Tuesday Never Has a Blue Monday starring Marilyn Joan Roberts premiered at La MaMa. Lanford Wilson along with actors Tanya Berizon, Rob Thirkield and director Marshall Mason founded The Circle Repertory Theater on Sheridan Square in 1969 where Wilson became the chief resident playwright. His play Hot L Baltimore was a great success and had a long run off Broadway at the Circle in the Square on Bleecker Street, establishing him as a first rate playwright. His two-character play Tally’s Folly was developed at the Circle Rep and transferred to Broadway where it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1980. Other Wilson Broadway hits included Fifth of July, Angels Fall, and The Mound Builders.
The current cast for Burn This stars former Marine Adam Driver (Star Wars Episode IX, HBO’s Girls) as ‘Pale’ and Keri Russell (also Star Wars Episode IX and the FX series The Americans) as Anna, with David Furr portraying Burton, Anna’s boyfriend, a wealthy and successful script writer and Brandon Uranowitz as a sparkle-plenty gay man named Larry, Anna’s roommate. The director Michael Mayer has turned this riveting revival into a superlative tour-de-farce laugh riot that has audiences getting up on their feet cheering and clapping all the way. I would suggest here without hesitation that the play is ‘a must-see’ for serious-fun loving theater-goers. The interaction between the players is sometimes violent, moody, and on the other hand, blunt and hilarious. The connection between the two leads sparks an explosive chemistry. Burn This is set in a huge, sparsely furnished lower Manhattan loft where Anna lives and practices her dancing. At the opening she has just returned from a funeral for her best friend, Robbie, a roommate and a gay dancer as well, who drowned in a freak boating accident. Her other roommate, Larry, an outrageously funny gay man who is in the advertising business, enters and the two grieve together until the surprising, boisterous and loud 5 AM entrance of Robbie’s homophobic brother Pale, a ‘Jersey boy’ and the manager of a restaurant in Montclair. Restlessly moving about like a wild animal as if in a dance, the raging, feisty, provocative, sexually driven man, obviously drunk and ‘coked up,’ as well as an obsessive ‘neatnik,’ demonstrated as he carefully removes his shoes and folds his jacket and pants over a chair, hysterically horrifies as well as mesmerizes Anna and Larry. Enter Brandon, Anna’s conservative, rational boyfriend. He becomes increasingly frustrated by the agitated peregrinations of Pale who alternates between fits of rage and jags of hysterical crying until the two break into violent fisticuffs and bouts of jiu jitsu. As the first act ends and Brandon departs, the graceful and beautiful Anna, despite her repulsion, falls for the brutal Pale and his irresistible charm. The two protagonists, coupling on the couch, come to realize that they can overcome their grief, hers for her talented friend and roommate, his for his younger, gay brother.
The second act brings more twists and turns: It is New Year’s Eve and Anna and Brandon have gotten back together. Sipping champagne, celebrating her success as a choreographer, and ostensibly planning their engagement, they are interrupted by a loud pounding on the door. Pale is back but with a difference, this time sober and exhibiting tenderness and remorse. Brandon, fed up, leaves while Larry arrives with some asides about gay suicides in gay bars on New Year’s Eve. Later, Anna, alone with Pale, reluctantly but inevitably succumbs to the brutal but irresistible advances and animal lust of the undeniably sexy and attractive Pale brilliantly enacted here by Adam Driver. The stars convince the audience that their unlikely pairing could actually work out. What I witnessed at the preview I attended was a spontaneous and rousing standing ovation—the lady seated next to me said “It was the funniest play I’ve seen in years.” Patti Smith’s song Because the Night ends the show. To be sure this was indeed a hilarious dark comedy we had all witnessed.
Playwright and author Robert Heide’s acclaimed books with John Gilman about American popular culture including the authorized biography of Mickey Mouse entitled Mickey Mouse, the Evolution, the Legend, the Phenomenon and his recently published collection of plays Robert Heide 25 Plays are all available on Amazon.com.