I saw Lanford Wilson’s “Burn This” some thirty years ago with John Malkovich making a strong impression in the role being played by Adam Driver in this revival. The difference between the two is stark. Malkovich made his mark by being a taut, wound-up and intrinsically sexy type. Driver is a super dynamic actor who piles on his peculiar charm with the force of fierce winds of a hurricane.
(One can get a screen version of Driver in his potent mode in director Terry Gilliam’s just released film, “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.”)
The plot of “Burn This,” directed by Michael Mayer, is a set-up for the clever exploration of individual relationships. Driver plays Pale, whose brother Robbie has been killed in a sailing accident. Keri Russell is Anna, a dancer-choreographer professionally partnered with Robbie, who shared living space with her and a mutual friend, Brandon Uranowitz as the outwardly gay Larry, who has some of the play’s funniest lines. Anna has since moved from dancer to following her art as a choreographer. David Furr plays screenwriter Burton, who enjoys family wealth and is Anna’s boyfriend.
The physical setting is a lower Manhattan loft, designed by Derek McLane with wide windows offering a background of a modest skyline view. Anna is all wound up, having just returned from a trip to Robbie’s funeral, where she felt like a stranger to his family and found obliviousness to the fact that Robbie was gay. She also deeply misses him and is deeply shaken by what happened.
The beginning of dramatic hell breaking loose occurs when one night Driver as Pale bursts in to retrieve Robbie’s belongings. He acts boorishly, yet intriguingly, and while on the one hand Anna is put off, the sexual vibes between them take hold, and not unexpectedly, they have sex. This sets up competition between Pale and Burt, with Larry as an ever-present onlooker and one who ultimately tries to solve the conflict.
In the course of all of this Pale is immensely entertaining, and playwright Wilson provides plenty of incidents and dialogue to move forward the personal introspections about where life for his characters should be heading. There is one confrontation after another, all adding to audience enjoyment. Russell does a very effective job portraying the various frustrations and emotions of Anna in relation to Pale and her work. Burton is convincing fighting against being the odd man out.
“Burn This” holds up as an important work in Lanford Wilson’s writing, and it is delightful to get such an excellent all-around production with this formidable cast. At the Hudson Theatre, 141 West 44th Street. Phone: 855-801-5876. Reviewed April 20, 2019.