Slow Burn

No heat: Kenner and Norton as mismatched lovers in Burn This.Photo: Susan Johann

Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune opened within two weeks of Lanford Wilson’s Burn This in October 1987, and with star-packed revivals of both now running, New York theatergoers have a rare opportunity to see what a difference fifteen years’ aging can have on a play. Though McNally’s is an intimate piece and Wilson’s canvas was somewhat larger, they’re both mating dances in which an unlikely man woos and eventually wins a reluctant woman (after, in both cases, bedspring-straining sex on the first date). Frankie and Johnny has retained its essential sweetness in an imperfect but endearing production with Stanley Tucci and Edie Falco. In contrast, Burn This – an odd duck of a play to begin with – has neither the stars nor the director to solve its problems in the flaccid staging that kicks off Signature Theatre’s season devoted to Wilson’s work.

Wilson was writing about the impact of a man named Pale on the lives of three closely connected people: Anna, a dancer and choreographer; her gay roommate Larry, a creative type in advertising; and Burton, her boyfriend, a rich kid and successful writer of schlocky sci-fi screenplays who teaches martial arts on the side. They’re mourning the death, in a freak boating accident, of Anna’s collaborator and best friend, Robbie, and his lover, Dominic; the play begins as Anna returns to the spare downtown loft she shared with Larry and Robbie.

At the funeral, Anna assumed Robbie’s family didn’t know he was gay and made no effort to enlighten them. The truth turns out to be more complicated, as she learns when Pale, his very straight, very macho older brother, shows up a month later at the loft. Well, shows up doesn’t quite describe Pale’s arrival in the predawn hours, wired to the gills on booze, coke, and pot, to collect his brother’s things. He launches into a series of diatribes – against the city, annoying people who leave messages, the $795 lizard-skin shoes that are pinching his feet, for starters.

He’s all id, Pale: no superego yanking the reins on this buster. Though he may refer to his brother as a fruit (yes, they knew), he’s the one member of his family, Anna informs him, that Robbie ever said he liked. Pale’s also married and has two kids, though Anna finds this out only after sleeping with him as a reward for calling her the C-word and crying in her hair. And so she becomes Stella to Pale’s Stanley Kowalski (Pale owes so much to Stanley you half expect him to hold forth on the Napoleonic Code and bellow Anna! from the street below).

As the absent Robbie haunts the lives of all four characters, so AIDS haunts Burn This, even though it is never mentioned. Robbie’s and his lover’s deaths echo the devastation tearing through the arts world at the time, and particularly the theater world, which was still mourning Michael Bennett and Charles Ludlam, among others, when the play opened. Loss would shape the plays McNally and Wilson wrote over the next decade. Loss, not love, draws Anna inexorably to Pale, who reminds her all too palpably of the soul mate who is gone, the lover she never shared her bed with.

If any of this occurred to James Houghton while preparing a cast headed by Edward Norton as Pale and Catherine Keener as Anna, it is not in evidence during a three-hours-plus production notable more for its longueurs than any flammability, physical or emotional, promised by the title. The good news is all visual: Christine Jones’s inspired, if somewhat anachronistic set, airy and spartan-chic; Pat Collins’s subdued, mellow lighting, and Jane Greenwood’s clingy costumes, which lend the proceedings their only sexual charge.

In 1987, Pale was played by a feral, if bizarrely bewigged John Malkovich in Brando mode, playing as much to the balcony as he was to Joan Allen’s Anna. He was a force of nature. Norton, crude and nimble and annoying, is, by contrast, more of an irritant than a sex magnet. Keener doesn’t give him much to connect with; like many film stars taking the stage, she does wonderful double takes (watch her eyes when Pale starts bloviating), but her speeches tend to be delivered not to her colleagues but to an unseen camera. Ty Burrell is no more credible as an aikido instructor than Keener is as a choreographer. The most moving performance is the unreservedly fey Larry of Dallas Roberts, who lends real poignance to the slow revelation of Larry’s own yearning.

Anna’s capitulation – she gives up Burton and seems ready to head into the unknown with Pale, who may be dangerous and unreliable but inspires her best work – made a kind of sense in 1987. Despite some new references in the script, however – caustic mentions of Mazda Miatas and the narcotic music of Enya – Burn This is as dated as Pale’s description of the city streets as “dying of crotch rot.” We don’t live there anymore, and with so little going on between Norton and Keener, they don’t seem to, either.

There’s no want of energy on the stage of Rattlestick Theater’s new Adam Rapp offering, Faster. This young playwright has a rising reputation for creating fast-talking, hard-hitting characters who make up in colorful language and an intensity of physical connection what they lack in, well, social graces. His new play is no exception. Set in the putrid, dark, mattress-strewn basement of a building in an unnamed midwestern city, it signals Apocalypse Coming from the first sense-assailing moments, and makes good on the promise. Some this will strike as exciting; others – I have to count myself in their company – will think, Oh, dear.

Living in that basement are two street hustlers: Kitchin, who despite his street talk is clearly of a spiritual bent, and Skram, who makes Eminem seem like a choir boy. Skram sniffs glue when he isn’t masturbating, and beats the bejesus out of his catatonic brother, Stargyl (sometimes he appears to be doing all three at once). Skram and Kitchin have kidnapped a girl and stashed her in a locked room; they’re waiting for a mysterious stranger to pay them more cash than they can dream of to take her away. When he appears, you would not be wrong to assume he’s hiding a tail in his suit.

Darrell Larson seems to have staged the play by plugging a direct current into Mtume Gant, Chris Messina, and Robert Beitzel, each riveting as Kitchin, Skram, and Stargyl, respectively (Roy Thinnes does his best with the hapless Man). The sets, costumes, and lighting effects are extremely persuasive. Especially the big fire, and the plague of flies. Oh, dear.

Burn This
Revival of the play by Lanford Wilson, directed by James Houghton; starring Edward Norton and Catherine Keener.
By Adam Rapp; staged by Darrell Larson.

Slow Burn