There are several reasons why one’s jaw might drop—that is, literally fall agape—while one is sitting in a theater.
Sometimes it’s from sheer amazement and delight, as when The Observer sat dumbfounded for a moment after Raúl Esparza’s searing “Being Alive” at the end of Company five years ago. Sometimes it’s caused by a plot twist, like the big second-act revelation in Jon Robin Baitz’s fantastic Other Desert Cities. And sometimes it’s in happy disbelief, as when we watched from the balcony of the St. James as Patti LuPone stopped the show to scold a photographer at her second-to-last performance in Gypsy.
But rarely if ever can we recall sitting with mouth open in horrified revulsion, as we did over the weekend at Burning, the breathtakingly bad new play by Thomas Bradshaw that the New Group opened Monday night at Theatre Row.
The play tells three interlocking stories of outsiders—a theater-world gay couple in 1980s New York who take in and then seduce a 14-year-old aspiring (and terrible, but adorable) actor; an up-and-coming black artist in present-day New York with a white wife and a smart, sensitive cousin in the projects; and a neo-Nazi brother and sister in modern Berlin—as they grapple with questions of sexual and racial identity. It’s designed as a knowing satire of, well, what? Pedophilia? Skinheads? Prostitution? Artists? Whichever, it’s so badly written, so exploitative (nearly every actor—including Hunter Foster, the only recognizable name in the cast, as the grown-up version of the contentedly molested 14-year-old—is naked and having sex at one point or another) and so misdirected that the play becomes not commentary but pornography. It’s designed to shock, of course; and it does, but vapidly.
My jaw first began to fall midway through the first act, when the neo-Nazis began a long and detailed discussion of constipation, regularity and the benefits of fiber. It became fixed there near the end of that long act—including intermission, Burning goes on for about two and three-quarter hours—as the gay couple, Jack and Simon, merrily rutting in a hotel-room bed, invite the boy, Chris, to join them. And it remained there through the second act, which begins with the neo-Nazi brother masturbating his 16-year-old, handicapped sister.
The script opens with an author’s note instructing that the characters be played “with utmost honesty and sincerity” and that the play be directed “in a straightforward and realistic manner.” Director Scott Elliot, who is also the artistic director of the New Group, compounds his error of selecting this play by acceding to that request, giving what could at best be a surrealist romp instead a plodding, naturalistic tone that serves to undercut any alleged humor or wit in the play.
“Maybe you can do this downtown,” Jack, a Broadway actor, at one point yells at the author of a play he’s working on, “but you’ve got to write differently for an uptown audience.” See what Mr. Bradshaw—an award-winning downtown playwright—is doing there, preemptively anticipating and deflecting criticism? Ha ha ha, clever, hilarious; your play is awful.
Burning, dreadful though it is, at least elicits a strong reaction. The Blue Flower, a pleasant new musical that opened at the Second Stage Theatre last week, has almost the opposite effect: it is perfectly lovely, and it is perfectly unengaging.
The Blue Flower is a memory play and a history play, telling of creative lives upended by World War I. Its focus is Max Baumann (Marc Kudisch, excellent as always, even when singing in the invented and somewhat inexplicable language “Maxperanto”), a fictional artist largely based on the German Expressionist Max Beckmann, who begins the play in 1955 by dying on a bench on Central Park West while working on the scrapbook of his life he calls “The Blue Flower.”
From there we flash back to young Max’s childhood in southern Germany, his growing success as an artist, his happy years in Belle Epoque Paris with his best friend and fellow painter Franz (Sebastian Arcelus), Franz’s love affair with the scientist Maria (Teal Wicks), the war, Max’s love affair with the Dada performer Hannah (Meghan McGeary), Max’s depression, Weimar, Max’s huge success as an artist; Hitler; emigration; more war, and death. (Franz is Franz Marc, Hannah is Hannah Hoch, and Maria is Marie Curie, more or less.)
It all sounds like a lot, and that’s because it is. The husband-and-wife team of Jim Bauer, who wrote the music and lyrics and co-wrote the book, and Ruth Bauer, who co-wrote the book and also created the whimsical, sometimes-archival videos that help explicate the history in the show, have packed an inordinate amount of storytelling—real and invented—into two and a third hours. (If you’ve been hungering for a jaunty, underscored retelling of the alliance system that turned an archduke’s assassination into continent-wide war, here’s your musical.)