Director Michael Mayer's generally well-acted production begins with an impressive visual, set designer Derek McLane's striking depiction of a downtown Manhattan loft apartment in what was once an industrial building, featuring square footage for days, tall windows offering a sweet view of the city and warmth provided by a parade of steam radiators lining a wall. Kerri Russell gives a fine, thoughtful performance as Anna, a dancer and aspiring choreographer who has just lost her best friend and artistic collaborator, Robbie, when he and his boyfriend perished in a boating accident. Anna and Robbie shared the loft with former dancer turned Madison Avenue wonk Larry. The funeral made it clear to them that most of Robbie's family was unaware of his sexual orientation, treating Anna as his girlfriend.
BURN THIS Broadway Reviews
The first revival of Pulitzer Prize Winner Lanford Wilson's Burn This starring Academy Award Nominee and three-time Emmy Award Nominee Adam Driver (Pale), Golden Globe Award Winner and Emmy Award Nominee Keri Russell (Anna), Tony Award Nominee David Furr (Burton) and Tony Award Nominee Brandon Uranowitz(Larry), is now open!
When a mysterious death brings together two unlikely strangers, their explosive connection sparks a chemistry too fiery to ignore. Burn This is a smoldering story of love and raw attraction by one of the most vital playwrights of the modern era.
Let's see what the critics had to say!
BWW Review: Adam Driver and Keri Russell Star in Lanford Wilson's Drama of Sex and Grieving, BURN THIS
Driver, a mesmerizing presence in TV's "Girls" and the latest "Star Wars" trilogy, lives up to expectations of the showcase role originally played by John Malkovich. Driver is riveting here, and audiences will identify with Anna's dilemma of both wanting him to leave and needing him to stay. In many ways, "Burn This" is Anna's play, but any actress would find it hard to compete against the monologues-as-arias that Wilson gives Pale. There are no such showcase moments for Anna, though Russell can be a spellbinder, too, as she tells the story of being in a room filled with pinned butterflies. The metaphor suits Anna all too well. Russell, whose stage credits are slim but who's proven her chops onscreen in "The Americans," creates a vivid, if less flashy, performance. Still, she's a force in her own right as she summons a quiet strength beneath her fragility, a sense of groundedness under her shifting emotions and a shaky will to move on despite the hole in her heart.
In director Michael Mayer's kinetic, consistently engaging production, though, it really is a piece for quatre: David Furr, as Anna's swaggering screenwriter boyfriend, Burton, and Brandon Uranowitz, as her wisecracking roommate Larry, aren't just foils; they're fully formed humans who may not be part of the story's central romance (or at least not on the winning end of the equation), but who consistently give the almost pathologically intense deux at its center light and air.
Michael Mayer's fine cast plays up the humor, and then some. By hinting at the loneliness underlying Larry's one-liners, Brandon Uranowitz makes the character more than a pre-"Will & Grace" sidekick, while David Furr, dashing and confident, holds his own in the fairly thankless role of Burton. And Russell? She's just plain beautiful in a star turn filled with the rich, emotional honesty that made her irresistible in TV's "Felicity." Her toned legs and exquisite arches make her look like the dancer she plays. Driver, a theater actor long before he starred in TV's "Girls" and started his Kylo Ren tour in "Star Wars," gives a performance as wonderfully weird as it is vanity-free. He's game for anything, emerging at one point in little more than some cheesy black BVDs.
But Driver keeps the show aloft. Turns out Kylo Ren is immensely compelling onstage - a genuine weirdo in the hulking, strangely graceful body of a former Marine, unafraid of huge, ugly displays of emotion, blazing through Pale's aggrieved, hilarious, F-word-peppered rants with the dexterity of a dancer like Robbie. At one point, he gently puts his hand on Russell's breastbone, and it's genuinely unsettling how much of her tiny torso his big human paw covers. He's an unstoppable force and an immovable object. And he's funny as heck. Whether he's steaming over the injustices of the world - "Half my fuckin' adult life, I swear to Christ, has been spent looking for a place to park!" - or padding around the room wearing one of Anna's little happi coats, struggling to get his enormous limbs through the weird double armholes, Driver's got a keen sense for comedy of multiple sizes, from the subtle background lazzo to the over-the-top tirade. It's fun to watch him interact with Uranowitz's wonderfully wry Larry - who can't help smiling, as if from behind his hand, at such a splattery, honest display of personality - and with Furr's Burton, who's sympathetic despite his many blind spots, and who really doesn't mean to bust out his aikido training on Pale. Pale just has a way of ... bringing things out in people.
But this "Burn This," which is steeped in the rich compassion for the lonely and lost that is the hallmark of works by Mr. Wilson (1937-2011), only rarely stirs the heart. In the ideal production, it creates the sense of fire meeting fire in a folie à deux between two ill-matched yet inexorably bound lovers. What we have in this case is a one-man conflagration.
It's a credit then to the luminous Russell and the two fine supporting actors in director Michael Mayer's slick revival that nobody gets swallowed up in Pale's vortex of bubbling testosterone. Lanford Wilson's 1987 pas de quatre, to borrow a term from the play, remains a compelling account of love as a headlong plunge into the unknown, a risky jeté out of the ashes of sorrow and the stupor of safety into pulse-quickening passion. But in choosing to dial up the humor, Mayer has undercut the anguish that is the drama's foundation, exposing Burn This as just a circuitous journey to an inevitable romantic conclusion.
So what's needed? I'd say passion, or at least chemistry. But Russell's Anna just hasn't the emotional weight to provide the heft needed for an equal and opposite reaction to Driver's Pale. She seems no more inescapably drawn to Pale than she was to Burton. Better she had stayed with that rich, handsome, doting stiff. They'd have had a nice little life.
However, Russell and Driver lack the nuanced interplay and explosive electricity necessary to make the drama (which is rather thin and has lost shock value over the years) come alive. Despite frequent laughs from Uranowitz, the production becomes increasingly static and empty over the course of two and a half hours of long-winded scenes.
Pale is the kind of steamroller role that is irresistible to actors-a sexy beast whose brutish pride masks a deep well of pain-and Driver gives it everything he's got. He's terrific, and slightly terrifying. Even in the vastness of Anna and Larry's open, spare, high-ceilinged loft, there seems barely enough space to contain him.
Into all of this terribly "you're OK, I'm OK, who cares if anyone out there's not gay" world drops Adam Driver. He not only gives a towering performance, he is a tower. If the Ponce Monolith at Tiwanaku ever came to life, it would be Driver's Pale. This guy's not just pre-Colombian, he's downright primordial, and speaks English as if it were a second language coming from a person who never got around to learning a first language. Pale's tirades show Wilson in peak form, and Driver does them full justice as he races from insult to demand to petty concern and then back to insult and demand and concern about his trousers not being properly pressed.
As Pale and Anna, Driver and Russell seem mismatched, mostly because he's a Juilliard-trained stage animal and she's a first-rate television actress, versed in small-screen physicality and nuance. He's reaching for the fly space and she's working in closeup, a problem exacerbated by the play, which seems fascinated by Pale and includes several scenes where Anna mostly just listens and reacts. Actually a few of her scenes with Burton (a character who makes perilously little sense) are like this, too. It's only with Larry that she gets anything like equal billing, so Russell mostly disappears, though she does somehow make 80s mom jeans look impossibly chic.
As the play ended, this critic thought about another-sadly invisible-play about desire, grief, need, and sexuality standing somewhere off in the shadows, while center stage Burn This stood shakily on its feet, bursting with energy and completely out of time.
After two years, the revival has finally opened at the same theater but with a different star and different producers; the director behind the project, Michael Mayer (of Spring Awakening), remains. What is revealed is a facile but overdrawn comedy-drama which is highly entertaining much of the time, with too much of that time spent on wild theatrics and glib characters cracking wise.
Despite what the promos for this revival would have you believe, the actors playing Pale and Anna don't necessarily require house-on-fire chemistry. Wilson didn't write a smoldering love story. He wrote a romantic comedy-and what they need is a burning need for each other. They both have massive holes in their lives thanks to Robbie's death. They're broken. (At one point, Anna even likens Pale to a bird with a broken wing.) Think Frankie and Johnny. Actually, it's fitting that Terrence McNally wrote a program note for this production; the unlikely lovers in his Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, which also premiered off-Broadway in 1987, are cut from the same cloth as Anna and Pale. This "love shit"-as Wilson once described the crux of Burn This-is tricky business.
REVIEW: Broadway revival of Lanford Wilson's searing Burn/This needs more sizzle despite appealing cast
Love and sex are ever complex and while I don't doubt some will rail against "Burn/This" and its tropes as a dated piece of Broadway theater, Wilson was so compassionate and haunting a writer that his play was, and is, filled with comfort, and some challenge, for everyone. As its title implies, "Burn/This" is complex and dangerous; it is worth more risk.