Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review
Burn This reviewed by Jerry Weinstein
Although the Signature's revival of Burn This has been retrofitted to include the tropes of the modern era -- cell phones, references to Miatas, and stalks of Lucky Bamboo on the window sill -- the realistic downtown Manhattan loft space is haunted by 1987, as well it should be. Back then, the play reflected an all too common tragedy of its time - young men who died of AIDS, estranged from, and strangers to, their own families. This contemporary staging ignores this historical context, erasing what Burn This was meant to eulogize.
Anna, a choreographer, has just returned from the funeral of her roommate and best friend, Robbie. Anna is steeped in rage over the senseless tragedy of his death; she is even more dumbfounded by his family's incomprehension of Robbie's place in the world. Back in her loft, Anna grieves in the company of Larry, her third roommate, and in the arms of Burton, her screenwriter boyfriend. Robbie's death has left a big pothole in Anna's life, but she is coping and filling it with work.
Without warning, Robbie's older brother Jimmy ("Pale" to his friends and enemies alike) crosses the bridge from Jersey, hoping to retrieve his brother's effects. He is stinking drunk, obscene, an irresistible object to Anna's immovable force. They are comically dissimilar; he despises the Downtown world that she is from -- a world that he is convinced killed his brother. While Anna is comfortable in discussing "sculptural space," Pale is a gun-toting restaurant manager whose life is a forced march to a bleeding ulcer. Yet their shared pain over Robbie is enough to metastasize into a bond. Anna resists her attraction to Pale, channeling her "inappropriate" feelings into her work -- which manifests itself as a dance piece, Pale & Anna.
Burn This succeeds on several levels. At risk for being Hollywood's go-to girl when a man-killer castrator is being cast (Being John Malkovich, SIMONE, Full Frontal), Catherine Keener's New York stage debut gives her the opportunity to play not only toughness, but frailty and tenderness. Her scenes with Edward Norton are intimate (even in the 499-seat Union Square Theater), emotionally honest, and evanescent.
Norton effortlessly transports an agile mania, shown to great effect in film (Primal Fear, Fight Club, and American History X), to the stage. Here he is taut, showing a fine comic timing in the face of desperation. Norton's charisma is evident in his tumultuous monologues, but he does not quite manage the corrosive, sensual animal magnetism the role demands, giving us a whiter shade of Pale. Dallas Roberts, as Anna's foil, confidante and roommate, has his moments of poignancy; he is doing the absolute best with a role that, even in 1987, must have felt as dated as The Boys in the Band. Certainly, he surpasses quota where camp is concerned, tossing off some of the play's best lines. When branded an opera queen he retorts, "I'm not an Opera Queen, Burton. I've seen opera queens, and believe me, I rank no higher than lady-in-waiting." Ty Burrell, as Anna's taken-for-granted Burton, is earnest and stolid.
While the second act is too long by half, the direction by Signature company founder James Houghton is economical and spare, as is the lighting -- a chiaroscuro of sorrow and twilight. But whereas I expected fire in Burn This, there are only lingering embers of regret.
After Burn This completes its ten-week run at the Union Square, the Signature's season of Lanford Wilson continues at its regular home, the Peter Norton Space on Forty-Second Street. Other plays scheduled are a revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Talley's Folly and two NYC premieres, Book of Days (10/15-12/8) and Rain Dance.
Theater Books Make Great Gifts
At This Theater
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
Click image to buy.
Go here for details and larger image.