Keri Russell swipes a match that won’t catch. Adam Driver strikes one up, but of course it’s out before long. Rarely does a single moment so literally, and unfortunately, stand in for the whole. Both stars on stage at the Hudson Theatre have considerable tools at their disposal — Russell is fresh off the best work of her career on The Americans, Driver an Oscar nominee — but the revival of Burn This that opened there tonight is flame-retardant nonetheless. An affair between their two characters never lets off sparks.
Lanford Wilson’s 1987 play, originally headlined on Broadway by John Malkovich and Joan Allen, circles a single combustible relationship with little else to fuel the action. Some consider it the openly gay playwright’s HIV/AIDS drama, though the young male lovers being mourned at the outset have died in a freak boating accident. One of them was a promising young dancer; Russell plays his roommate and artistic partner, Driver the older brother who survives him.
The two meet when he bursts through her door in the middle of the night. Because her spacious loft recalls a too-bright version of the apartment from Friends (scenic design is by Derek McLane, lighting by Natasha Katz), it’s hard not to think of Kramer. He reminds her of the friend gone too soon, while she offers a glimpse of the brother he was too narrow-minded to know. Another pair of unlikely but clearly fated lovers fall quickly into bed. He has a wife (or says he does), and she a yuppie boyfriend (David Furr) plus a sardonic (still living) gay roommate on whom nothing is lost (Brandon Uranowitz).
Driver’s character runs hot like a furnace, New Jersey tongue spouting off like a turbo engine, his every emotion overflowing like a proto-Tony Soprano on coke. Driver, who cut his teeth on New York stages, makes a satisfying meal of it, particularly as floodgates of fraternal mourning burst open. Russell’s dancer-turned-choreographer is the sketchier drawn of the two characters, almost always operating out of exasperation with the men who surround her. When it’s her turn to listen (which is often), Russell is alive to the moment, but ultimately out of her element. Her Broadway debut finds her stuck in a single register, one regrettably close to teenage petulance.
If Wilson’s drama was meant as an oblique comment on its times, or this revival means to speak to ours, director Michael Mayer’s production makes neither case. Its 1987 setting comes heavily flanked in air quotes, from costumes (by Clint Ramos) that occasionally double as intentional punchlines to throwback tunes that perhaps do so inadvertently (as when Heart cries out “how do I get you alone?” over the lovers’ first off-stage duet in the sheets). The production’s nostalgic sheen glosses over a hollow center.
Both Russell and Driver broke through playing tormented lovers on TV shows that defined generations of young people, to whose grown-up taste the play’s erotic promo art undoubtedly aims to appeal. But the only magnetism evidenced here is the alignment of Hollywood schedules.
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photos by matthew murphy