The acclaimed Broadway revival of Burn This serves as a welcome reminder of playwright Lanford Wilson’s exploration of immense talent and humanity. Nominated for three 2019 Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Play, Burn This touches on big themes — grief, loss, passion, ambition — within the deceptively simple story of four people whose lives intersect after the sudden death of a promising dancer in mid-1980s New York City.
“There is so much to discover every time we perform the play,” says Adam Driver, a 2019 best actor Tony nominee for his stupendous performance as Pale, the larger-than-life older brother of the closeted young dancer. When Pale storms into the loft apartment his brother shared with a beautiful choreographer named Anna, played by Golden Globe winner Keri Russell (Felicity and The Americans), their chemistry ignites an unexpected love story. “The language is so rich and emotionally full,” Driver adds. “It’s been an exercise in allowing the words to open up our imagination in ways we don’t necessarily expect.”
Sharing the stage with Driver and Russell are Brandon Uranowitz, a 2019 best featured actor Tony nominee for his droll performance as Anna’s gay roommate, and David Furr, as her longtime boyfriend. “The play is an exploration of the human condition, and of people who want to live bigger, better, more gratifying lives,” observes Uranowitz. “What’s fascinating is that they speak in this poetic, heightened language that is unique and theatrical but at the same time accessible and relatable. It’s thrilling to have Lanford Wilson’s words in my mouth every night — no one writes like that anymore.”
A special joy for the creative team of Burn This has been theatergoers’ enthusiastic rediscovery of Wilson, who passed away in 2011. “One of the big goals of this revival was to remind people that Lanford Wilson was a very significant part of the history of 20th-century drama,” says director Michael Mayer. “He had a deep affection for human frailty and for the foibles of people trying to connect. There’s a love for humanity that comes through in everything he wrote.”
A Pulitzer Prize winner for Talley’s Folly, one in a trilogy of plays centering on a family in his native Missouri, Wilson made his name in productions at Off-Broadway’s Circle Repertory Company. “Burn This was a culmination of Lanford’s adult experience living in New York,” says Tanya Berezin, a cofounder of the still-missed Circle Rep and Wilson’s literary executor. Although the young dancer and his partner die in a boating accident, “the play is a metaphor for the AIDS crisis from the point of view of the grievers,” Berezin explains. “What do we do when something grabs our loved ones and takes them away?”
The fact that AIDS is never mentioned adds to the universality of a play that is simultaneously heart-wrenching and hilarious. “My memory was that it was edgy and dark and dangerous,” Mayer says of the original 1987 Broadway production starring John Malkovich and Joan Allen. “What I had not remembered until our beautiful quartet of actors took it on was how funny the play is. There’s nothing more gratifying than getting enormous laughs of recognition peppered through the whole evening. The play captures a moment in New York so brilliantly and in a way that still feels totally fresh.”
The cast marvels at Wilson’s ability to elicit big emotions from small-scale scenes. “On the page, it seems like a fragile story taking place on a couch in an apartment,” Uranowitz says with a laugh. “I imagined [seeing it in] extreme close-ups, not reaching 1,000 people in a Broadway theatre. But the experience of expanding the text to fill that space, mining what’s bubbling underneath, makes it so much more electric and exciting, for us and for the audience. People leave the theatre vibrating!”
Designer Derek McLane’s expansive loft set allows plenty of room for Pale to pace the stage, declaiming on everything from classical music to flavors of tea. “It should feel urgent,” Driver says of the play, which he first performed a dozen years ago as a student at Juilliard opposite his future wife, Joanne Tucker. “These are people who desperately need to live big lives in order to feel something, which I think is a beautiful idea. Having the scale of a Broadway house elevates what we’re doing.”
The musical quality in Wilson’s writing is especially evident in Burn This. “It is operatic,” affirms Berezin. “There are arias all the way through, about butterflies, about trees, about experiencing life on a large level, which is something Lanford longed for. He was a great poet; he wrote the way people talked, and yet the plays sing. I don’t know how he did it.”
Just as Berezin and Wilson remained lifelong friends, the characters in Burn This bond in varied and unexpected ways. “I love the theme of creating your own family,” says Mayer. “It’s the people you choose to have in your life who sometimes have the most impact.” Adds Uranowitz, “The play is about four people communicating, miscommunicating, grieving, laughing, coping, and trying to figure out their lives.” Pausing, he adds, “This role at this moment in my life has been very important to me, and I’m glad it’s resonating with people.”
A box-office draw in the wake of his Oscar-nominated performance in BlacKkKlansman, plus TV’s Girls and three Star Wars movies, Driver made a happy discovery when chatting with theatergoers outside the stage door. “So many people have told me that this is the first play they’ve ever seen,” he says. “That’s the thing I’ve been most excited about.”
Mayer, who envisions future revivals of Wilson gems, such as Fifth of July, The Hot L Baltimore, and Balm in Gilead, sees Burn This as “a love letter to what making theater is all about. It goes back to something essential in how we tell our stories — one room and four humans having a real encounter with one another that leaves them forever changed. It’s a beautiful thing.”
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