Despite its title, Burn This takes some time to heat up.
This revival of Lanford Wilson’s 1987 play (on Broadway until July) opens with Keri Russell’s Anna curled up on the floor, exhausted. She has just returned from the funeral of her best friend and roommate Robbie, killed in a boating accident with his secret male lover. The senselessness of Robbie’s death awakens ennui in the lives of Anna and the two men closest to her: gay advertising executive Larry (Brandon Uranowitz) and her wealthy screenwriter lover Burton (David Furr). Their ruminations on loss, love and professional fulfillment are nice, but you can practically hear the wheels spinning above them. Something or someone is going to blow; it’s just a matter of when. That much-needed spark arrives in the wee hours of the morning via Adam Driver’s Pale, Robbie’s older brother. He’s a hulking mass of exposed nerves, practically crawling out of his skin and all over the apartment as he comes to grips with Robbie’s life and death. Anna is bewildered, enthralled, and aroused by Pale, and the two combust in a firestorm of grief-stricken attraction.
Pale and Anna’s explosive first scene signals a shift in the play, from staid exploration of grief to character study of an unhinged man, and what makes him appealing. Burn This goes all in on Pale the second he barrells through Anna’s door, centering itself in the character’s balls-to-the-wall emotional chaos. There is a palpable risk that the show will blaze out of control alongside him, and the experience is all the more exciting for it. When Pale is on stage, the show is a delight: consistently hilarious, genuinely moving, and absolutely astonishing. He is such an engrossing presence that when he exits and the play attempts to shift back to life without him, the disappointment is profound. After all, professional development and inauthenticity wilt in comparison to Pale’s mania. As such, the show noticeably sags without him, especially in the second half where the book shows its age. While Larry is an indisputable highlight, his role could’ve been expanded beyond the reductive sassy gay best friend trope. Also not translating well in 2019 is Burton’s recollection of a same-sex encounter that stands out as a low point.
When Pale is back on stage, those problems crumble away and Burn This‘ flames blaze again. If the show has another weakness, it’s just how vital Adam Driver is to its narrative pulse, even though Keri Russell is the show’s lead actor by way of time spent on stage. Russell is great at conveying Anna’s deep restlessness and vulnerability, but her most compelling moments come from reacting and responding to Driver. The chemistry that she has with him is dynamite, and indispensible to the play’s success, but Russell deserves more interesting individual beats to play. I was surprised last month when she was passed over a Tony nomination, but I understand why upon seeing the show. It’s a shame that, either due to the original book’s limits or a lack of adaptive imagination, she isn’t given the chance to really go for it. Like Russell, David Furr and Brandon Uranowitz make the most of their material, with Uranowitz especially carving out scene-stealing moments of levity and heart.
And then there is Adam Driver. There are plenty of fire-related superlatives out there – explosive, volcanic, incendiary – and yet they still don’t articulate just how incredible his performance is. Driver captivates the very first moment he’s on stage and refuses to relinquish our attentions. He fully and deeply commits to every line and every movement, leveraging his trademark intensity and broad physicality to dominate every visible part of the stage. Pale is a character of absurd hilarity and paralyzing emotional pain, and Driver modulates between the two pillars with startling ease and efficiency, never once ringing a false note. I won’t pretend to be familiar with his Tony chances – I imagine Jeff Daniels and Bryan Cranston make for intense competition – but Driver’s performance is jaw-dropping, and confirms his status as one of the best actors working today.
Burn This is an inferno of instability so intense that it feels like the whole stage will crumble within its blaze. The play is exciting and confounding, even at its low ebbs, as you wonder just far this fire will grow. With Adam Driver holding the matches and Keri Russell fanning the flames, the very least you can do is sit back and watch it all burn to the ground.