When Pulitzer Prize-winner Lanford Wilson’s Burn This first opened on Broadway in 1987, its four-member cast included a luminous young actress named Joan Allen — already an accomplished stage performer at the start of a film career that would bring her more acclaim — and Allen’s fellow Steppenwolf Theatre Company member John Malkovich, by then celebrated for his work in both movies and theater.
More than 30 years later in the first Broadway revival, another duo carrying both critical cachet and star power – Academy Award-nominee Adam Driver and Golden Globe-winner Keri Russell – will bring Wilson’s modern classic back to Times Square, set to begin previews March 15 and open April 16 at the Hudson Theatre.
Fresh off a six-season run in the hit FX series The Americans, and known for the titular role in Felicity, Russell will make her Broadway debut, like Allen did, as Anna, a dancer and aspiring choreographer who has just lost her roommate and creative partner, Robbie, in a mysterious boating accident.
Driver, whose numerous hit films include BlacKkKlansman and the latest Star Wars entries, along with an Emmy-nominated turn on the hit HBO series Girls, last appeared on Broadway opposite Frank Langella in a 2011 revival of Terence Rattigan’s Man and Boy. Here he is cast as Pale, Robbie’s mercurial, intense older brother, a restaurant manager. Pale’s arrival at the downtown New York loft his brother shared with Anna and Larry (played by Brandon Uranowitz) further unsettles matters, particularly for Anna and her screenwriter boyfriend, Burton (played by Tony Award-nominee David Furr).
Driver, who with wife Joanne Tucker regularly brings American plays to military audiences through their nonprofit Arts in the Armed Forces, had been eager in the past couple of years to get back onstage himself. “It was about finding the right one, and the timing being right,” he says. For Russell, last seen on the New York stage in the Off-Broadway premiere of Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig, Burn This presented a golden opportunity — if a slightly intimidating one — after The Americans had wrapped.
“I had just finished doing the show and thought I would take a break for a bit,” Russell says. “And then this came, and it seemed the right combination of interesting and scary, and a chance to be at home in New York instead of traveling to work.” She got encouragement from “my guy,” Americans costar and real-life partner Matthew Rhys: “He does stage readings all the time and loves doing plays. I’m more of a shy person; this is definitely pushing my boundaries, taking a leap…but that’s good.”
Russell has considered the differences between her Americans character, KGB agent Elizabeth Jennings, and Anna. “Elizabeth was so specific, so steely and strong. I loved playing her. Anna feels much more open. The thing about Anna is that she’s ready to have a have a huge experience, she’s on the precipice of starting a new life for herself, making her own way. All the characters in the play are in some way ready for that, I think. They’re at that age when everything feels very alive.”
Driver notes that loss is also a key theme in Burn This, “and how unexpected it can be. Robbie dies at such a young age, in such a sudden and unexpected way. I think that was Lanford Wilson’s response to the AIDS crisis. This was the ’80s, when all these young and beautiful and talented men were disappearing, and he was writing about what that does to the people left behind, as they try to process it and come together. [Wilson] wrote a lot about actual family and acquired family, and that’s a theme here too.”
Both actors were enthused about the prospect of working together. “I knew Keri through Matthew, and knew that working with her would be a dream,” Driver says. “It’s very rare that you get to work with people like her, who come totally prepared and totally professional, and who can convey strength and vulnerability at the same time. She’s always right there in front of you. I couldn’t ask for a better scene partner.”
Russell praises Driver’s “sensitivity as an actor. I think his role here can be read one way, but Adam brings other stuff, which will be really interesting.” Driver has actually played Pale before, in a college production. “[Pale’s] energy is singular and pretty demanding,” he recalls, musing, “I can relate to him more now than I could when I was 21.”
For Russell, working on Burn This also offers, in spite of the play’s gritty and darker elements, something of a reprieve from the drama of today’s world. “One thing that pulled me toward it is that everything we’re going through now politically is so taxing,” she says. “It feels so good to be dealing with love and lust, with people who have this burning need at a time when everything seems to matter. This was definitely the right play at the right time.”