Burn This : Ed Norton Steps Into John Malkovich’s Very Tight Croc Shoes

You are no doubt familiar with John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance , starring John Wayne and James Stewart. The 1962 movie has the most famous line in the Ford oeuvre : “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” It’s a great line, and it’s something that happens all the time, particularly in the theater.

In theatrical folklore, the more time passes, the more legendary a great performance becomes. The myth grows with the telling and becomes “the truth.” Who’s to dispute it? The mythic performance itself has become dust and will never be seen again.

John Malkovich’s performance in the original 1987 production of Burn This is a legendary case in point. The highly praised Edward Norton has taken on the Malkovich role of the incendiary antihero Pale in the prestigious revival of the play, which has just opened to acclaim at the Union Square Theater. Mr. Norton, like his co-star Catherine Keener, is best known for his film roles, and he’s without question a stage actor of the first rank. Yet I can’t pretend that my memory of Mr. Malkovich’s astonishing, near-lunatic performance as Pale, the blue-collar hypochondriac, hasn’t stayed with me.

But how true is the memory? I’ve checked with others, and they recall the young Mr. Malkovich in every wired detail down to his peculiar long hair, which he kept tossing around like Olivier playing a coked-up Richard III. Pale is supposed to be the manager of a two-star New Jersey restaurant, which has never been too easy to believe in the first place. It says much for the less flamboyant Mr. Norton that we believe it. Mr. Malkovich’s whirlwind version came from the other side of the moon. He was literally bouncing off the walls (which Steppenwolf actors liked to do then). When he hobbled around cursing his tight-fitting crocodile shoes-“You’d think a lizard’s got to be supple, right? They got to move quick “-he took one off and practically beat it to death. He was very funny, very dangerous, utterly unpredictable and furious . So is Pale. Fury goes to his manic center, with touching needs of the heart. Mr. Malkovich’s playful, vain sense of androgyny appealed, too. He actually reminded us, as great performers dare to do, that the acting game can be fun.

Lanford Wilson’s Pale is a terrific, electric invention, among the dramatist’s very best. But I think the lengthy Burn This has always been flawed, like an inspired improvisation of an anxiety attack that peters out.

Mr. Wilson wrote it for a quartet of actors, but it’s Pale who gives the evening its vitality and romantic desperation. The scenes between the three others-the dancer, the screenwriter, the best friend-are pretty conventional. They peak and dip in interest, as if the dramatist can’t wait to get back to the virtuoso Pale and let him mouth off. That Mr. Norton dominates the evening less than Mr. Malkovich did is probably a good thing. The director, James Houghton of the Signature Theatre Company, has placed the focus carefully-too carefully!-on the disconnected foursome as a whole, and each character will come to deeper self-knowledge before the night is through. But whether played by Mr. Malkovich or the excellent Mr. Norton, we still miss the volcanic Pale when he’s offstage.

Burn This begins with the dancer and choreographer Anna (Catherine Keener) alone in her spare downtown loft. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Pale says to her later, eyeing the place. “It’s supposed to be artsy, I know. It’s quaint. Look at it-you should make automobile parts here; can tomatoes, it’s a fuckin’ factory …. “

But the opening 20 minutes are a lengthy setup to Pale’s entrance. Anna has just returned from the funeral of her roommate, Robbie, a brilliant dancer who’s been killed along with his gay lover in a boating accident. Her potential husband and lover, butch Burton in jogging shorts (played by Ty Burrell), is a screenwriter who was born wealthy and spoiled but sold out. He’s the least interesting character in the piece-the author’s familiar, quite muted comment on the second-rate, self-involved Hollywood hack. Burton is well-meaning but dim. From the outset, we know he isn’t right for Ms. Keener’s intelligent Anna, who seems draggily inconvenienced by him. Anna is smart and independent and upset, and this dope’s no use.

She also shares her loft with Larry (charminglyplayedbyDallas Roberts). Again, we recognize the type. I’m afraid that even from Mr. Wilson’s pen, Larry is that entertainment-industry cliché, the Gay Best Friend. He tidies, he washes up, he comforts . He’s always there. “You know me,” he says drolly to the grieving Anna. “I’m always willing to drape the joint in crêpe.” He quotes amusingly from Lust in the Dust : “Who are you? Where did you come from? What do you want? It’s me, isn’t it? You’ve always wanted me. You want to have your filthy way with me in the hot desert sun. Ravage me like I’ve never been ravaged before …. “

Larry’s fun, but he’s essentially a comic foil who’s as lovable as a loyal house pet. He cutely plays Cupid to Anna and Pale. There’s no spice in him, except for a belated frisson with Burton, of all people. In a moment of confessional candor, dim Burt had told Larry and Anna of the time he sheltered in a doorway during a snowstorm and a man he met there gave him a transcendental blowjob. In the snow ? It understandably raises Larry’s interest.

But more or less everything leading up to Pale’s gloriously unhinged entrance is foreplay . Along with David Mamet’s Teach in American Buffalo , it’s one of the great entrances in modern drama. “Goddamn this fuckin’ place,” go Pale’s opening words as he bursts into Anna’s loft. “How can anyone live in this city? I’m not doin’ it. I’m not drivin’ my car in this goddamn sewer, every fuckin’ time. Who are these assholes? Some bald-headed, fat-lipped son of a bitch thinks he can own this fuckin space. The city’s got this space specially reserved for his private use. Twenty-five fuckin’ minutes I’m driving around this garbage street; I pull up to this space, I look back, this fuckin’ baby-shit green Miata’s on my ass going beep-beep …. “

“I’m sorry,” Anna says when he’s finally done. “Do I know you?”

It turns out that he’s dead Robbie’s older brother by 10 years, who has come to get his things. “Ten years, so what? What’s older? Older than what ?” There’s a fastidious inner logic to the seemingly deranged Pale, like his preference for a perfectly brewed pot of orange pekoe tea or his peculiar pride in immaculately pressed trousers. “Half linen, half wool,” he moans at his creased trousers. “Fuckin’ useless.” Then he adds, without pause: “I could’ve been a dancer. Who needs it?”

Edward Norton’s honest, jittery firepower owes less to showmanship, more to the recessively neurotic. He conveys a genuine system of almost surreal beliefs. He shoots down pretension like a marksman taking lethal aim at sitting ducks. Pale, it’s little appreciated, would have made a good ballet critic. (Or drama critic, come to that.) Anna’s pat aesthetic for balletomanes of choreographed bodies and “sculptural mass” are no use to him. He responds to things as they are, like hurricanes. When Anna’s mind drifts off during one of his moral anecdotes concerning pulping trees, he chides her mild apology for “giganticness of unconcern.” “The fuckin’ world is going down the fuckin’ toilet on ‘I’m sorries’ … “

In his fashion, Pale is as much an artist as Anna (and arguably a better one). He’s his own invention. The fact that Lanford Wilson invented him is almost beside the point. Pale’s an act of spontaneous combustion, a work of art in the making. Nothing the other three characters do or say really surprises us. The battle between Pale and Burton to claim Anna’s soul is a no-brainer. Was the outcome ever in doubt?

However, the tortured desire of the two lovers for each other isn’t as hot as it might be. It never ignited between Mr. Malkovich and the future star Joan Allen. Mr. Norton and Ms. Keener, who play so well together, don’t generate any erotic heat, either. It’s referred to in the script. But the great tragic love between Pale and Anna is ultimately unearned. They’re in search of “understanding.” The love is affectionately needy. There’s no convulsive passion between them, and Burn This turns out to be a sentimental play with a tidy end.

“Somebody’s always cryin’ in your house,” says Pale, and he has a point. He enjoys a good weep himself. Meanwhile, certain overstated lessons are to be learned about Love and Art. Although Pale has long been married with two children, he learns how to love for the first time. So does the newly freed Anna, who’s now inspired to choreograph a dance piece as never before. Even jilted, sobbing Burton ends up writing a serious movie script, abandoning the one about the dangerous, mythic sea and sailors’ wives left waiting by the shore. He shouldn’t have-he might have written The Perfect Storm . Who knows about Larry? He’s left lusting in the dust, I guess.

Burn This isn’t a great play; it’s a play with a memorably great role . James Houghton has staged a winning production, but there are times when he directs at a self-consciously slow tempo, giving stretches of the evening an arty, underlit “meaning.” Pale would not have approved.