Winter storms may be in the rearview mirror, but idle storm chasers should know that there’s a tempest being whipped up nightly at the Hudson Theatre, where a ferociously good Adam Driver is starring opposite Keri Russell in a new Broadway revival of Lanford Wilson’s “Burn This.”
Playing a character nicknamed Pale, a man deeply unhinged by the loss of his younger brother, Driver delivers a dazzling whirlwind of a performance, full of heat and anger, explosive grief and consoling passion. When Pale alludes to feeling like he has a furnace in his stomach, you have no trouble believing it: Driver seems to be generating enough emotional heat to power a whole city block. Which is all to the good, because the production, directed by Michael Mayer, never coheres into an emotionally compelling whole.
Set in a loft space in downtown New York, at a time when downtown New York was still home to aspiring artists (most would kill for the apartment Derek McLane has designed), the play examines the emotional aftermath of a tragedy as it shapes, or rather reshapes, the lives of four characters.
In the opening scene, Anna (Russell) has just returned from the funeral and wake of one of her roommates, a fellow professional dancer named Robbie. He and his boyfriend, Dom, were killed in a boating accident, and Anna is still shellshocked — and angry, too, at having to pretend to Robbie’s mostly estranged family that she was somehow romantically connected to him. Her boyfriend, the successful screenwriter Burton (David Furr), arrives to comfort her, but Anna remains too disoriented by the roiling feelings she cannot quite express to pay much attention as Burton tells of his plans for a new movie and his recent vacation in Canada. It’s left to Anna’s other roommate, the tart-tongued (and thus, naturally, gay) Larry (Brandon Uranowitz), to gently help usher Burton out the door so Anna can slide into a bath and begin to wash away her sadness.
Fate has other plans. A month after the funeral, Pale, also known as Jimmy, comes barreling into the loft, talking a blue streak and exuding a little too much rage as he rails about the squalor of the neighborhood and the cretin who tried to swipe his parking spot. Driver, who forged a solid career on the stage, notably playing Louis in the Signature Theatre’s revival of “Angels in America,” before his television and film career took off, begins at such a high pitch of intensity that you fear he might, well, run out of steam. Playing a rough-at-the-edges, slightly threatening character dripping old-school machismo, Driver seems to want to out-De Niro De Niro, and maybe out-Pacino Pacino at the same time.
Fortunately, Driver pulls out of, er, overdrive, and deftly begins to lace Pale’s furious monologues with hints of more complex feeling. Pale has ostensibly come to pick up his brother’s belongings, but as Larry and Anna attempt to corral this strange, wild beast, Driver eases up on the emotional pedal, making it achingly clear that Pale’s bursts of sneering contempt (at one point he brutally says to Anna, “So the three of you lived here, you and the two faggots”) are really just an ugly expression of his own disorientation at the loss of his brother.
Slightly drunk and slightly high on cocaine, Driver’s Pale gradually peels back the swaggering bravado to expose the more complicated human being underneath, who cannot find a place to put his pain, and reaches instinctively for the solace of sex, seducing Anna not so much with his animalistic sensuality as with his desperate vulnerability: “My heart hurts,” he cries. “I think I’m dying.” Driver’s racking sobs and the sense that Pale wants to crawl out of his own burning skin are rendered with riveting truth.
The play, first seen in 1987 in a celebrated production starring John Malkovich as Pale and Joan Allen (who won a Tony) as Anna, undeniably bears some signs of its era. There’s that talk of cocaine, of course, then as trendy as today’s cold-brew coffee among certain classes of urban dwellers. Robbie’s estrangement from his family, and Pale’s casually expressed disgust for homosexuals, would be less likely even in a working-class family today. And the character of Larry, played with a wiry sassiness by Uranowitz, was rather more a novelty on a Broadway stage some 30 years ago. Wilson was a pioneer in casually presenting gay characters onstage in their full humanity, but what was radical then almost shades into antiquated stereotype today, with Larry quoting from the now-little-known camp movie “Lust in the Dust” and making knowing allusions to opera.
What hasn’t dated is Wilson’s rendering of the painful process of grieving, and the also sometimes painful alchemy of unexpected love. As Pale continues to barge unexpectedly into Anna’s life, just as she is trying to remake herself from a dancer into a choreographer, her ambivalence about the unsuitable nature of the relationship (“apples and oranges” she calls the two of them) is etched by Wilson with remarkable delicacy.
Russell, her career newly burnished by the television show “The Americans,” has the willowy beauty and graceful movement of a dancer, but she is not entirely adept at transmitting the delicate subtext in Wilson’s dialogue across the footlights. We need to feel that Anna is, throughout the play, herself on a knife-edge of vulnerability, at a turning point in both her professional and personal lives that is quietly gnawing at her. But Russell’s performance never reveals the full extent of the shadows, sorrows and yearnings that give the character such a touching fragility. (To be fair, because it’s the less overtly expressive one, Anna’s role is probably much harder than Pale’s to play.)
Uranowitz expertly delivers the campy zingers that Larry chirpily sends forth whenever the tensions in the apartment begin to ferment, as Anna and Pale’s turbulent relationship sputters and sparks. And while Furr gives a similarly fine performance as Burton, born into wealth and smoothly comfortably in his skin, his character, too, bears less weight than the two principals — although Furr does well by the final scene, in which he puzzles out his own confused reaction to the loss of his lover. (This character, too, has his dated aspects, however; the kind of glib contempt he shows for the industry he works in would not likely be rampant today, when every college grad who doesn’t head to Silicon Valley heads to Hollywood to write for television.)
But “Burn This” depends for its effectiveness on the delicately drawn dance of attraction, despite their reasoning minds, between the unlikely lovers at its center: Anna, the emotionally reticent artist at home in urbane New York circles, and Pale, the earthy restaurant manager from New Jersey who wears his bleeding heart on his sleeve. At one point, trying to stop Pale from entering into another long, disjointed monologue, Anna wryly observes, “You’ve mastered half the art of conversation.” A similar observation could be made of this somewhat uneven production: With Driver so forcefully dominating the evening, it gives a masterly depiction of half a relationship.
“Burn This” opened at the Hudson Theatre on Tues., April 16, 2019.
Creative: Written by Lanford Wilson; Original Music by David Van Tieghem; Directed by Michael Mayer; Scenic Design by Derek McLane; Costume Design by Clint Ramos; Lighting Design by Natasha Katz; Sound Design by David Van Tieghem.
Producers: David Binder, Ruth Hendel, Big Beach, Sharon Karmazin, OHenryGS Productions, Ken Schur, Jayne Baron Sherman, Cynthia Stroum, Barbara Whitman, Richard Willis, The Shubert Organization and Ambassador Theatre Group.
Cast: Adam Driver, Keri Russell, David Furr, Brandon Uranowitz.