Since Burn This is a play full of confessions, I may as well get into its spirit by admitting that it’s not a play I like very much, even though I’m an enthusiastic admirer of its author, who seems to me among the very best of our innumerable underrated playwrights. Burn This is incomparably more popular than the plays of Lanford Wilson that I do love. It has been done everywhere; its scenes are acting-class staples; young actors, especially those who think they resemble John Malkovich, get a manic glint in their eye when they talk about it. Audiences, as far as I can tell, love it too. It may leave me frustrated and irritable, but it has never failed in its effect.
For me, the problem with Burn This is that it seems to consist of two plays laid one on top of the other, but not fitting exactly; the lines are always a little off register. One of the plays deals with mourning and creativity. Robbie, a gifted young dancer-choreographer, has been killed in a dreadful boating accident along with his lover, Dominick. His dance partner and platonic roommate, Anna, has to sort out both her feelings and her future, with the support of their third roommate, Larry, an artist who works in advertising; we gather that both Larry and Anna have cherished unrequited sexual feelings for Robbie. Larry, in the wisecracking tradition of gay roommates in entertainment, appears to be celibate; Anna has an on-again off-again relationship with a wealthy young screenwriter, Burton, whom she never loves quite enough to marry.
Into this emotionally fragile house of cards, at an ungodly hour, Wilson injects a larger-than-life character who could easily blow down stronger houses: Robbie’s older brother Jimmy, a/k/a “Pale” (the nickname comes from his fondness for V.S.O.P.). A restaurant manager a decade older than his late brother, Pale is everything these hypersensitive artists aren’t: blunt, crude, appetitive, arrogant, assertive, and utterly heedless of manners, proprieties, or anybody else’s concerns. He also happens to be resourceful, perceptive, intelligent (albeit uneducated), good in bed—even considerate and caring, once you work through the maze of his self-created value system. Naturally, he has a riveting resemblance to Robbie. And, though lacking the others’ nuanced tremors, he has his own volcanic set of emotional conflicts: He’s miserable about his drudging, purposeless life; guilt-stricken about the failure of his youthful marriage; and alternately busy grieving for Robbie and resenting the “shame” his open homosexuality brought on the family.
Pale is drawn on an epic scale, and Wilson writes him epic-length streams of rant, notating his hero’s deflections from correct usage with the insensate glee of a man who has just discovered that he can ride a whirlwind. The only trouble is that whirlwinds have a way of dropping you with a thump, and not necessarily at the spot where you wish to land. Pale isn’t merely a Jersey vulgarian in this loft full of Downtown artsy types; he’s wildly out of scale, like a Homeric hero who’s mistakenly wandered into a Jane Austen novel. Wilson tries to correct the error by building him into the story as an element of romantic conflict: Pale is to be the miraculous but impossible fulfillment of Anna’s repressed longing for the unavailable, and now lost, Robbie. But Pale shatters this beauty-and-the-beast romance even more violently than he does the Philistine-meets-artists comedy. Even Shakespeare didn’t try pairing Falstaff with Rosalind or Viola.
The more gloriously and obnoxiously excessive Pale is, the less probable Anna’s behavior becomes. “I have never had a personal life,” she keeps saying, as if this were a reasonable excuse for not bluntly showing the door to someone who, from her vantage point, can only be viewed as a life-wrecking creep. Along with the weird and only dimly explored tensions among the characters regarding Robbie’s gayness, the script has a weirdly dressy-empty consciousness of the dance world that’s particularly puzzling from Wilson, whose plays often show a tremendous sagacity about artists and their dealings with life. We don’t hear of Robbie getting any memorial service or obituary tribute, or of any New York colleagues joining Anna and Larry on the agonizing trip to the family funeral. Apart from the convenient story of Anna’s choreographic commission from someone mildly famous named “Fred,” we hear nothing about coevals, competitors, mentors, funders, idols, bookers, aficionados, or even rivals. Granted, this would all be background detail, but it’s the detail of Anna’s life with Robbie, and surely as germane to the work as the kitchen procedures in the Short Hills ristorante Pale manages—especially since there’s a running question, heavily rubbed in by Pale, as to whether Robbie and Anna’s work had any artistic value at all.
On this, as on other matters, Wilson doesn’t give us enough evidence to judge—another departure from his usual exactitude. Is Burton really a nice guy who loves Anna, or just a spoiled rich kid who wants an artistic trophy wife? What is Larry’s problem? What kind of long-term relations could Anna possibly have with Pale, who would inevitably either remain wild or dwindle into a banal suburban spouse? And what do any of these matters have to do with grieving for and coming to terms with Robbie’s loss? Seemingly reveling in their emotional confusions, the characters never look ahead, till one loses patience with them, and Pale’s tirades start to seem more and more like tactical explosions set off to startle onlookers back into the world of the play.
Only a quartet of actors who are both vividly flashy and deeply anchored in their emotions can carry conviction in a piece this tenuous. The cast of James Houghton’s current revival, largely lacking both stage experience and in some cases stage presence, will probably be ready for it in about 20 years. Watching them skate over the surface of the play now is a peculiar experience, like watching a rep company’s tech run-through of a piece that opens next January, while the actors’ minds are busy with the one that opens next week. It’s all what actors call “marking,” with nobody living the role. Edward Norton is efficiently showy, Catherine Keener sobs effectively on cue, Ty Burrell sends out alternating waves of sexy and sad, and Dallas Roberts busily counts his way to the next gag line. To compare these people, undoubtedly hard-working and well-meaning, to the original cast’s John Malkovich, Joan Allen, Jonathan Hogan, and Lou Liberatore—actors who had spent their professional lives, up to that point, working in permanent acting ensembles—would be cruel and unjust.
Pat Collins, the current show’s lighting designer, must share my feeling, since she puts the cast in dim light or silhouette as often as possible. I suppose, given Norton and Keener’s fame in the outside world, they deserve praise for their willingness to do a play in which somebody says, “There are no good movies. . . . Movies are some banker’s speculation about how American adolescents want to see themselves that week. Period.” But indicating one’s sympathy with an idea, like other forms of indicating, doesn’t get you very far onstage. They may mean to convey the burning passion the play itself struggles to arouse, but the result is disappointingly cold.