When a drama is dependent on the influence of a character who dies before the action begins, a person who is only known as reported by others, the playwright has a real challenge to overcome. Lanford Wilson's answer in "Burn This" now running at the Huntington Theatre is soap opera. This script, produced in 1987 starring John Malkovich was updated for its limited 2002 run at Signature. It seems somewhat adrift in the mythical world of the New York creative scene and just a bit dated. The author apparently became involved in the world of modern dance at the time, but hasn't been able to get beyond the obsessive surface of its closed world.
This play has one of Wilson's smallest casts, just four actors, though Robbie, a dancer who drowned with his lover having unwisely taken a small boat out into New York harbor, is a constant presence, in the minds of three of the four. Two of them shared the spacious loft studio with him where the piece is set. At the center of the grief is Anne, Robbie's professional partner, a dancer turning choreographer as her 30's close in, played by Anne Torsiglieri, last seen at the Huntington opposite John C. Reilly in "Marty." The other roommate is Larry, played by Nate DeWolf, seen three seasons ago as Keith the serial killer in "Betty's Summer Vacation." Larry's an openly gay advertising man who might have had a crush on Robbie as well. Anne's boyfriend and possible fiance is Burton, a rich guy turned successful science-fiction writer, played by Brian Hutchinson , an actor new to the Huntington. The Malkovich part of "Pale", Robbie's violent older brother is taken by film and T.V. actor, Michael T. Weiss, who's physically convincing in the role.
All these seasoned professionals might be suitable in a more intimate production, under the tutelage of a director able to guide them into more than occasional moments of emotional contact. Susan Fenichell, a seasoned rep director, however has created a rather pedestrian series of scenes on James Noone's over-sized set. She's not been able to overcome the script's shortcomings or get beyond its less than convincing romantic veneer. Wilson's dialogue sparkles from time to time, but the brittle plot is too dependent on external happenings and reported events. The denouement could be omitted entirely without changing the play substantially. There are several red herrings concerning possible relationships not seen onstage as well as the unresolved suspicion that possible Mob connections in Robbie's family, who were in denial of his homosexuality, might have had something to do with his accident.
The cast is further hampered by imposed character traits which border on cliche, especially in Larry's case. To DeWolf's credit, in a final scene with Pale, he manages to suggest a somewhat deeper person than the flip persona Larry normally presents. The playwright uses this revelation merely to further the plot rather than create an epiphany. Pale, whose knickname refers to V.S.O."Pale" brandy, his usual tipple, is a messy collection of attitudes which might be assembled into some sort of convincing role given direction. As it is, Weiss has only had time to scratch the surface and play the obvious. Which makes the attraction Torsiglieri has to muster for this erratic loser all the more arbitrary. Her character may indeed find in his older brother the sexual relationship never possible with her friend and partner, but the action of the play is too superficial to support that conclusion Hutchinson has the hardest role of all as Burton, the inconsequential rich boyfriend, never convincing limned as either an author or a person. The original production won two Tony's for acting (but none for Malkovich) which suggests the level of acting needed to bring such incomplete characters to life.
The biggest single problem with this production, however, is its set which uses the actual back brick wall of the stage to suggest buildings across the street, real fire escape units suspended outside three tall freestanding windows suggesting the walls of this former factory space. There are tall supporting columns which at first seem left over from the "Gem of the Ocean" setting previously on this stage. The rather eclectic furnishings seem almost an afterthought. Lighting designer Mary Lou Geiger, in her first Huntington show, has supplied hints of neon, flashing lights, and passing headlights, which emphasize the staginess The general lighting however is Broadway 101 with practicals. The second biggest problem is the music chosen for between scenes which reinforces the suggestion of soap opera mentioned earlier. It relates to no one onstage and doesn't advance the action. Candice Donnelly's costumes for her first Huntington effort give the cast enough to work with, however.
There was a small scale production at a miniature theatre in Boston last spring which probably came closer to making this script relevant to current life and art, Wilson's apparent intention. The problem remains that the sort of situation which seemed daring in 1987 has been used since in too many subsequent efforts, on stage, screen, and even television. Dance sequences which demonstrated Anne and Robbie's closeness, and the evolving relationship with Pale might freshen the concept, but would still leave nagging questions such as why an audience should care about such self-absorbed characters in the first place. The literary roots of Wilson's title, quoted in brief by Burton almost as a throwaway, go up in smoke in the final cliched moments of the play.
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