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Now Opening: 'Burn This' Starring Keri Russell and Adam Driver

Category Broadway

|by Ron Fassler |

The simmering play returns to Broadway in a star-studded revival

Lanford Wilson, who died in 2011, was a highly prolific Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, and one of the leading figures in the now legendary Off-Broadway theater movement of the early 1960s, alongside such writers as Sam Shepard, María Irene Fornés and John Guare. His output Off-Broadway came close to two dozen plays, a quarter of which transferred uptown to major Broadway productions. One of the more successful productions was Burn This, which opened at the Plymouth (now the Schoenfeld) in October 1987 to excellent reviews and a Tony Award for its leading actress, Joan Allen. In a stunning omission, her co-star John Malkovich, who received some of the best reviews of his career in the role, was not nominated for a Tony.

Adam Driver and Keri Russell star in ‘Burn This’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Adam Driver and Keri Russell star in ‘Burn This’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

But make no mistake about it: The part of Pale is a genuine lure for actors, especially those unafraid of a challenge. In the original production, Scott Glenn and Eric Roberts succeeded Malkovich as Pale, and Edward Norton tackled the part in a 2002 Off-Broadway production, with Peter Sarsgaard taking over later in the run. For this 2019 Broadway revival, opening April 16th at the Hudson Theatre, Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) is Pale, and Keri Russell (TV’s The Americans and Felicity), will be making her Broadway debut as Anna. Joining them in the four-person cast is two-time Tony Award nominee Brandon Uranowitz (An American in Paris and Falsettos) and David Furr, nominated for a Tony for the 2016 revival of Noises Off. To top it off, Michael Mayer, who won the Tony for the original production of the musical Spring Awakening in 2006, directs. To put it mildly, this show is packing heat.

And heat is at the core of the relationships in this play as well. The plot follows the dancer and choreographer Anna, who while grieving for the recent accidental death of Robbie, one of her roommates and best friend, is forced to deal with Pale, the deceased’s estranged brother (Sam Shepard sibling territory for sure). And as with Shepard, it’s difficult to see where things are going at first. Robbie was gay, and his and Anna’s relationship was naturally a platonic one, but it makes no difference in the sense that she is in mourning as if she lost a lover. Then, with the arrival of the charismatic and heterosexual Pale (who, in a smart twist, is a bit of a homophobe), everything is suddenly up for grabs. Anna is thrown for a loop by her attraction to Pale, a feeling somewhat shared by her remaining roommate Larry, who is gay. The fourth character is that of Anna’s boyfriend Burton, though saddled with the conventional role of “the guy we know isn’t right for our leading lady,” still manages to pop off some amazingly deft dialogue. Even if it’s conventional in its plotting, the play is a tribute to Wilson’s way with words, in that it felt fresh and exciting in 1987. 

Wilson’s resume also includes Tally’s Folly (his Pulitzer in 1980) and Fifth of July, which ran for fourteen months on Broadway between 1980 and 1982. But Wilson’s magnum opus is the sprawling Balm in Gilead, which first premiered at La MaMa in 1965, but became a much more famous title from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre production, which opened Off-Broadway in 1984. With no exaggeration (I saw it), it literally caught lightning in a bottle. Directed by John Malkovich, not only did it allow for a re-evaluation twenty years later, but it also gave us Laurie Metcalf’s first performance on a New York stage, in what is now considered one of the most arresting monologues ever performed. Her twenty-minute solo in the middle of the play that remains, to this day, among the highlights of my theatergoing lifetime. And as much praise as can be bestowed upon Metcalf, the play is the thing, and it’s Wilson’s lyrical writing that made such momentous theatricality possible.

Now that Burn This is returning to Broadway, I am beyond excited to see it again after so many years. And as for anyone out there who has never seen it: What are you waiting for? Burn This opens April 16th at the Hudson Theatre for a limited engagement through July 14th only.

For more of the best of Broadway, check out our list of the Top Shows in New York in April 2019

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