Adam Driver’s Alpha-Male Histrionics Nearly Extinguish the Passion in ‘Burn This’

Adam Driver and Keri Russell in Burn This.
Adam Driver and Keri Russell in Burn This. Matthew Murphy

Everything old is new again. Anyone coming to New York hoping to see the latest theater piece is in for a big disappointment. Broadway seems to be locked in a time capsule, a depository for revivals from the past, many of them trashed beyond relevance in flashy, misguided productions (like the dismal new country-western Oklahoma!) that exist for the sole purpose of showing off bad directors with a penchant for gimmicks. Renovated musicals seem less dated than dramas, but the new slant on the great playwright Lanford Wilson’s bland but exceptionally well polished Burn This—a play from 1987, now with an uneven cast directed by Michael Mayer—has earned mixed reviews, and justifiably so.

The plot, in a nutshell: Anna (Keri Russell), a dancer turned choreographer who shares a spacious loft in downtown Manhattan (perfectly designed by Derek McLane) with two gay roommates, has just returned from the New Jersey funeral of her best friend, favorite roommate and former dancing partner Robbie, who died in a senseless boating accident. She is still in a rage over her pal’s clueless family, so unaware of Robbie’s place as a gay man in the modern world that they thought Anna was their son’s grieving girlfriend.

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Back home, safe and secure from the toxic suburbs, Anna is comforted by her other roommate, Larry (Brandon Uranowitz), a wisecracking advertising executive, and by her own straight, handsome but neurotic lover, Burton (David Furr), a screenwriter who offers her the escape she needs in bed but is so self-centered that he gives the impression that he is sexually fulfilled mainly because he’s in bed with himself.

Anna is just beginning to cope with the tragedy of losing Robbie when all hell breaks loose at 5:30 a.m. with a tumultuous banging on the door that admits a monsoon in the form of Robbie’s drunken older brother Pale (Adam Driver), who has crossed the bridge from Jersey to retrieve Robbie’s “stuff.” Pale is an obscene, obnoxious, bombastic motormouth because Driver plays him that way. The actor got rave reviews, which have left me baffled and very much on a limb with a saw in my hand—in my opinion, his loud, boisterous and unleavened performance is what’s wrong with this production in the first place.

How I pity theatergoers who never saw John Malkovich in the original 1987 production, or the even superior Edward Norton in the 2002 Off Broadway revival. They both found the sensitivity and the pain Pale kept hidden from the world as well as the brutish behavior that attracted Anna to him against her will. Nasty and big as a tree, Driver’s Pale is a one-note samba in a play that cries out for subtlety and nuance. There is nothing about Driver that inspires sympathy or suggests boyfriend material.

In the shadow of his loutish and overwhelming performance, lovely Keri Russell, in a role that originally won a Tony award for Joan Allen, seems colorless. She’s curt and enigmatic, but there’s no authority in her acting, either. Maybe she hangs on because of the sex, but there isn’t even anything erotic about Driver’s interpretation.

The play is about why good girls who know better are destructively drawn to bad guys for all the wrong reasons. Sometimes the bad guys just need a shoulder to cry on, but Driver’s Pale is such a failure in life, love and employment that he throws the production out of balance. While he is not written as a likable character, there is still much more to the role of Pale than Driver ever discovers for himself. In the course of three months covered by seven scenes, Pale makes the loft his home, to everyone’s angst, including Anna’s, although she weakens and heads for the bedroom every time he drops his pants—which, in Driver’s outsize portrayal, he does quite often.

In Act Two, which is much too long, Larry returns from a miserable family Christmas in Detroit where “the suicide rate is higher than all of Scandinavia” to find Anna and Burton, back from a New Year’s Eve party enjoying Baccarat flutes of champagne, invaded again by the abusive Pale, and the play favors comedy over character development, careening dangerously in the direction of a television sitcom.

Burn This is not the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright’s greatest work—it’s not up to the high standards of Fifth of July or Talley’s Folly. It’s also not a play about the big issues. But it proves what a keen and witty observer of life Lanford Wilson was.

For a young generation taking in great theater for the first time (not veterans), Burn This offers a chance to absorb a play that is based on the grace and purity of writing instead of the distractions of the awful word “concept.” It contains no drama, intrigue or crackerjack action, and all of the actors seem to be in the wrong play. But even if this production offers more ashes than flames, it’s a fine chance to experience how bracing it is to hear real people saying real things to each other—a rarity in today’s theater outings. Burn This is still earnest, riveting and well worth a visit.

Adam Driver’s Alpha-Male Histrionics Nearly Extinguish the Passion in ‘Burn This’