Adam Driver and Keri Russell star in tepid revival of Burn This, a 1987 drama by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Landford Wilson.
By: Patrick Christiano
April 19, 2019: Originally commissioned by Circle in the Square, Burn This, a 1987 drama by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Landford Wilson, sizzled on Broadway with John Malkovick and Joan Allen, who won a Tony Award for her performance. The two stars generated real heat in a thrilling production that ran on Broadway for over a year, with 437 performances. Michael Mayer’s tepid revival with Adam Driver and Keri Russell as Pale and Anna, respectively, is played more for laughs than emotional subtext and leaves us wanting more.
The, often entertaining, revival, served up in a glossy production with two film stars, is all surface appeal with little subtext or authentic emotional life. This is disappointing as the gifted playwright was a unique voice and his outstanding drama, although a bit dated, is still a smoldering, nuanced look at two lost souls struggling to find a safe place to sort things out in the face of a shared tragedy.
The play, set in 1987 in a loft in a converted cast-iron building in lower Manhattan, starts just after the funeral of Robbie, a young gay dancer who died in a boating accident with his lover. Robbie’s roommates, Anna, his sensitive dance partner, and Larry, a confident young ad man, have returned from his funeral in the Midwest to the loft the three had shared together. Burton, Anna’s longtime lover, and Pale, Robbie’s cocaine snorting older brother, will show up at the loft, and the four will attempt to make sense of their lives and their relationships now that someone they all loved has died.
Although the staging at the Hudson theater looks great, the two stars have little chemistry and fail to generate the kind of push/pull that is needed for the evening to succeed dramatically. The problem appears to be Keri Russell, who looks terrific, but is a limited stage actress unable to convey any shading or duality. Her Anna comes off like a cranky brat, and her vapid performance leaves you wondering why two men are fighting over her.
She’s an excellent example of what works on film doesn’t necessarily work on the stage. Sustaining a performance on stage requires creating a complex inner life while playing specific actions that serve the text. She instead seems to wander vaguely around the stage throwing her body into posed positions, in an attempt to appear relaxed and at ease. And when she listens, she is so passive that she appears slightly bored just waiting for her turn to speak. She does look very pretty with long limbs and a stunning lean figure, and I am sure would look even better on film. However, this is the theater, and she needs to do more than say the lines and look pretty.
As a result, the immensely talented Driver is given little to react to from Russel, who seems barren of an inner life, and he resorts to a predominately physical performance, which although dynamic with razor sharp transitions, feels imposed rather than organic. Sure, the play springs to life whenever he bursts into the room with his larger than life persona, but his skilled performance never hints at danger, and the dynamics needed, between the two stars, to propel the evening to another level isn’t there.
The supporting actors, David Furr as Burton, Anna’s rich screenwriter boyfriend, and Brandon Uranowitz as Larry, Anna’s gay roommate, are excellent. They almost steal the show with their sincere performances that display lovely shadings and wit. They probably create the most genuinely affecting moments in an evening that misses many opportunities between the two leads.
Burn This ***1/2
Hudson Theatre, 141 West 44th Street, NYC
For tickets call 1 855 801-5876
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes including a 15-minute intermission.
Photography: Matthew Murphy