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Review - Burning: Oh! Theatre Row!

I don't think I'm giving away a major spoiler when I mention that toward the end of Thomas Bradshaw's Burning, there's a reference to one of the characters as having won the 2010 Tony Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Play. I'm not sure I'd appreciate the honor if I was John Benjamin Hickey, as the character referred to is one of the sleazier ones in a play filled with sleaziness.

But the moment I think this play will be remember for by those who, unlike a fairly substantial number the evening I attended, choose to remain for the second act, comes a bit earlier, when the 24-year-old neo-Nazi skinhead art gallery employee (Drew Hildebrand), starts massaging the legs of his nude, wheelchair-bound 16-year-old neo-Nazi sister (Reyna de Courcy) and, upon seeing her aroused reaction, inquires, "Do you need to experience a release?"

The line was greeted with a huge laugh from the house that night, followed by many chuckles and guffaws as big brother fingered his sis to an orgasm (blocked away from the audience's sight). There are those who will tell you that audience members encountering edgy, boundary-shattering actions on stage will react with what's called "nervous laughter." I've sat in enough audiences to tell you there was nothing nervous about the laugher I heard during this scene; nor the scene set in the 1980s where the stereotypically predatory gay male theatre couple (Andrew Garman and Danny Mastrogiorgio) have a threesome with the 14-year-old hustler they "adopt" (Evan Johnson). Nor the scene where the white curator (Jeff Biehl) encourages the black painter (Stephen Tyrone Williams) who has never slept with a woman of his own race to try anal sex with a black prostitute. ("If you don't mind my asking, does your wife let you stick it in her bum?")

No, I'm very confident in my assessment that the copious laughter I heard all night at Burning was the laughter of people saying, "We are watching a very bad play that is trying really, really hard to be shocking."

This was my first encounter with Bradshaw, whose previous work has been generally seen in smaller spaces below 14th Street and, with The New Group's premiere production, is getting his first taste of attention from a well established, midtown located Off-Broadway company. The whole enterprise seems to be baiting customers for a rise even before they enter the theatre. The promotional posters and post cards depict a male butt (the same model appears black in some material and white in others) with the title Burning written across it, making me immediately think of hemorrhoids. Once inside we encounter a trio of intertwining plots, one of which concerns a one-man play about an American who goes to Cambodia for some little girl prostitution and winds up taking a virgin tyke back to America to raise as his daughter, marrying her after she turns legal. (His plea, "I am not a pedophile! I resisted touching her until she was twenty years old," also got some hearty belly-laughs.) And when a character insists, "Maybe you can do this downtown, but you've got to write differently for an uptown audience," the moment seems designed to force attendees to consider the extent of their own personal hipness.

A note in the script handed to reviewers reads, "All characters should be played with the utmost honesty and sincerity... The play should be directed in a straightforward and realistic manner," indicating that Burning is to be taken as satire. And while director Scott Elliot's company, which includes Vladimir Versailles as a young man questioning his sexuality, Hunter Foster as the guy who's there for him when he figures it out and Barrett Doss as a prostitute who has a way with words with both customers and their wives, admirably give honest and sincere portrayals, the play itself comes off as the most ridiculous kind of underwritten melodrama, accented by numerous graphic sex scenes, mostly fully nude, and, aside from the attractiveness of the company members, pretty silly in their deadpan seriousness.

Photos by Monique Carbon: Top: Hunter Foster and Vladimir Versailles; Bottom: Barrett Doss and Stephen Tyrone Williams.

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