Lanford Wilson’s “Burn This” is one of those rare two-act, two-and-a-half-hour plays that needs a long third act. We need to know what happens to the talented young choreographer Anna after she dumps her very civilized boyfriend, Burton, to take up with the Neanderthal named Pale. Does she end up on drugs or in the hospital or dead?
The Anna-Pale relationship brings to mind what might happen to Blanche du Bois if, after rejecting a marriage proposal from Mitch, she has an affair with her sister’s husband, Stanley Kowalski, post-rape.
“Burn This” opened on Broadway in 1987, and John Malkovich mesmerized as the volatile Pale by tossing and incessantly playing with his long-hair wig. He brought to mind Tennessee Williams’ Stanley only more solipsistic, preening, homophobic, sexist, childish and demeaning to everybody around him. The big difference between “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Burn This” is that Stanley has a worthy adversary in Blanche. Anna, on the other hand, is little more than a reactive wimp. In her Broadway debut, Joan Allen very effectively disguised the stick figure that is Anna. And Allen deservedly won a Tony for her masquerade.
Michael Mayer directs the first Broadway revival of “Burn This,” which opened Tuesday at the Hudson Theatre, and he takes a decidedly light, comic approach to the material, especially the character of Anna. In her Broadway debut, Keri Russell plays her as if auditioning for the role of Tracy Lords in Philip Barry’s “The Philadelphia Story,” another play in which a woman needs to be humiliated to find true, meaningful love.
In what appears to be an homage to Malkovich’s performance, Russell plays with her hair a lot. It’s great hair, too, and not a wig. She throws it around, runs her fingers through it, moves it from one shoulder to the other for emphasis. To show she’s not really attracted to her polite, successful, and sane boyfriend (translation: a loser in bed), she even wears her hair up on a New Year’s Eve date. Clearly, Russell knows what to do with her hands, unlike Julia Roberts in her ill-fated 2006 Broadway debut in “Three Days of Rain.” Russell also knows how to give the impression she isn’t reading the script for the first time, unlike Catherine Keener in the 2002 Off Broadway revival of “Burn This.”
What Russell can’t do is ground Wilson’s play in some reality that makes sense of Anna’s decision. And who can blame her? In the era of #MeToo, women aren’t encouraged to embrace their masochistic side. Instead, Russell and Mayer have chosen to make a joke of the whole dated enterprise.
To Wilson’s credit, “Burn This” predates “Will & Grace” by more than a decade, and what gives some flesh to Anna is that she’s Grace Adler times three. Instead of one Will, Anna lives with three gay men, although two of them (Pale’s younger brother and his boyfriend, who lived in this commune loft 50% of the time) are recently deceased. The remaining homosexual is a guy named Larry who works in the advertising business but should switch to being a stand-up comic, which is his real job in “Burn This.” He’s a veritable laugh machine, and again, Wilson can be credited with predating yet another “Will & Grace” character by a decade. Playing Larry, Brandon Uranowitz mostly impersonates Sean Hayes.
David Furr is almost too convincing in the doormat role of Anna’s tossed-aside boyfriend. Furr retains his heterosexual credentials even when describing in graphic detail a furtive blowjob he enjoyed (on the receiving end, of course) years ago on the snowy streets of Manhattan. Uranowitz’s Larry becomes comically aroused. Russell’s Anna doesn’t bother to break her languorous pose on the divan.
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.
The question in this very lively parody of “Burn This” is not why Anna ends up with Pale. It’s how she survives sex with Pale.