Burn This review – Adam Driver ignites patchy Broadway revival

A small play about big words – sex, death, fate, love – Lanford Wilson’s Burn This has barged in on Broadway again. Set alight by a beautiful, unpredictable performance from Adam Driver (you’d call it a star-maker, but Driver is already a star), the play is a mishmash of absurdities, contrivances and what-did-he-just-says? But it invites actors to luxuriate in its ripe emotionalisms and half-naked sentimentality. If that’s the kind of thing that turns you on, then sure, sparks fly.

Set in the mid-80s, in the kind of industrial loft in downtown Manhattan that is probably a billionaire’s boutique pied-à-terre by now, Burn This opens just after the sudden death of Robbie, a brilliant young dancer who drowned while returning from Fire Island. Robbie’s roommates, Anna (Keri Russell), a dancer now edging into choreography, and Larry (Brandon Uranowitz, charming in a thankless role), an ad man who speaks pretty much exclusively in quip, are navigating that loss when they’re interrupted by Pale (Driver), Robbie’s big brother, who bangs through the door, coked up and boozed up and raging against everything – potholes, ice cream, queers, bitches, his new shoes. Anna asks him to leave, but he stays, forcing her to listen to his loud grief, to comfort his showy pain. Hyperemotional and hypermasculine, Pale stands in stark and obvious contrast to Burton (David Furr, a good sport), her patrician boyfriend. You could call it a love triangle, though none of the angles add up.

Burton writes screenplays, some of them about androids, whose contents might as well be marked “Danger: Metaphor”, and he helpfully explains the play’s title, his philosophy of art: “Make it personal, tell the truth and then write ‘Burn this’ on the bottom.” Wilson, who died in 2011, was a personal writer who took the messy, ugly lyrical business of human relationships as his enduring theme. He developed Burn This from the bleeding raw material of friends and acquaintances. And yet the play feels too fantastical to really wound or ravish.

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Keri Russell in Burn This. Photograph: Matthew Murphy

Directed with sympathy and a little schlock by Michael Mayer, Burn This teases what many of us want – or think we want, or thought we wanted – a passion so overwhelming, so undeniable that it sweeps away anything ordinary or practical. But the romance at the center of Burn This mostly seems like a lot of work and a lot of twaddle. Sex with Pale loosens something in the tightly wound Anna, infusing her choreography with vigor and eroticism. But is even an all-powerful bonk worth the way Pale upends her life and overrides her grief and refuses to leave her apartment and her bed when she asks? Why do the men in this play – and the man who wrote it – keep getting to decide what Anna wants and gets?

As Pale and Anna, Driver and Russell seem mismatched, mostly because he’s a Juilliard-trained stage animal and she’s a first-rate television actress, versed in small-screen physicality and nuance. He’s reaching for the fly space and she’s working in closeup, a problem exacerbated by the play, which seems fascinated by Pale and includes several scenes where Anna mostly just listens and reacts. Actually a few of her scenes with Burton (a character who makes perilously little sense) are like this, too. It’s only with Larry that she gets anything like equal billing, so Russell mostly disappears, though she does somehow make 80s mom jeans look impossibly chic.

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For flammability, that leaves Driver, an actor of real volatility who can sell strength and sex and anguish all at the same time. His Pale is bad, bad news – any reasonable person would have changed the locks on him after his first scene. But you might fall for him, too.

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