Review of Burn This, starring Adam Driver & Keri Russell, on Broadway

  • Our critic's rating:
    April 17, 2019
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    Adam Driver is turning up the heat at the Hudson Theatre in Burn This, Lanford Wilson's drama of love and grief. Director Michael Mayer has turned back the clock to 1987, with an 'overture' of 80's pop hits that gets you in the mood even before the play begins. For anyone nostalgic for youth in a simpler time, the music will warm your heart, setting off a thousand sense memories of a more livable, affordable New York. This was the era of the Yuppie, bright colors and big shoulder pads. TriBeCa was the new frontier, and the city still harbored secrets in its various dark corners. The set by Derek McLane, with its cavernous, sparely furnished space and floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on a skyline unblemished by skyscrapers instantly identifies both time and places. Indeed, the set is more than a backdrop; it is the first character we meet.

    The loft is the home of Anna (Keri Russell), a dancer and choreographer, and her roommate Larry (Brandon Uranowitz) who works (for his sins) in advertising. They are mourning the loss of their third roommate and Anna's dance partner Robby, whose death in a freak accident has thrown Anna and Larry into an emotional spiral. At Robby’s funeral Anna has discovered that despite his fame as a brilliant dancer, his family had never seen him dance. Not surprisingly, they also had no idea he was gay.

    Anna’s sometime beau Burton (David Furr) arrives to alternately comfort Anna and obsess about himself and his writing. A preppie straight out of the film "Metropolitan" Burton is well meaning but a little lost, desperate to break free from the trap of conformity. As Larry and Anna go over the events at the funeral, you want to share their grief, but somehow the conversation feels a little distant, a bit intellectual. You want to feel a burning anger toward a family that had so little consideration for its son, but the flame doesn't get going; until, that is, Adam Driver as Robby’s brother Pale blazes onto the scene.

    Once onstage, Pale is the only character you see, Driver the only actor you watch. He roars, he whispers, he prowls, plumbing the depths of grief, finding nuance and humor in an unpredictable and unsettling character. Just when you think you know Pale; Driver unpeels yet another layer. He is sui generis, unlike anyone I’ve seen. It is absolutely thrilling.

    Holding your own onstage with a character of such magnitude is no easy task, and while Uranowitz and Furr manage admirably, I'm sorry to say Keri Russell falls short. This was not the show for her to choose for her leap to Broadway. She's trying to run before she can walk. She commits fully, and looks great in Clint Ramos’s gorgeous, feminine, dresses, but Russell is no match for Driver. Russell's voice also has difficulty getting past the footlights. Uranowitz as the “1980's gay friend” character lands every joke, keeping the energy flowing with a light touch that belies his deep concentration. Every so often you glimpse the steel that lies beneath. Furr touchingly conveys Burton’s angsty, insecure preppie boy in search of... something. Ironically, when Burton finds it, instead of increasing his self-confidence the discovery seems to eviscerate him.

    Ultimately, however, this play, this performance is all about Adam Driver. Any scene in which he does not appear feels like the indifferent calm before the storm. When Driver leaves the stage, you long for his return. With his vocal power and uncanny physical presence, Driver commands the stage, eclipsing all else, in a riveting performance that echoes long after you have left the theatre.

    (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

    "Adam Driver is a great disrupter. This volcanic actor’s entrance in the lopsided new revival of Lanford Wilson's Burn This, which opened on Tuesday at the Hudson Theater, is prefaced by a fanfare of violent pounding. It is 5 a.m., in a loft in Lower Manhattan. And it sounds as if the Incredible Hulk, feeling very impatient, is in the hallway — or maybe a runaway cyclone. When the door opens, what is revealed behind it does not disappoint. With long, flailing limbs and a face molten with anguish, Mr. Driver explodes into view with an outsize fury that makes everyone and everything around him seem Lilliputian. And a production that has so far felt pleasant and prosaic is flooded with the anarchy of life in extremis."
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "Pale is the kind of steamroller role that is irresistible to actors—a sexy beast whose brutish pride masks a deep well of pain—and Driver gives it everything he’s got. He’s terrific, and slightly terrifying. Even in the vastness of  Anna and Larry’s open, spare, high-ceilinged loft, there seems barely enough space to contain him."
    Adam Feldman for Time Out New York

    "Love never comes easy in plays by Wilson, the late Pulitzer Prize winner whose work specializes in funny, sad, warts-and-all stories of idiosyncratic men and women. This show has all that, as well as contrivances and speeches more colorful than convincing."
    Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Post

    "When Adam Driver barrels onto the stage as the coked-up restaurant manager Pale in Burn This, he doesn't just give off sparks, he threatens to explode, blowing out the full wall of industrial glass windows in designer Derek McLane's converted Lower Manhattan warehouse set. It's no mystery why Keri Russell's exponentially more composed dancer Anna would be both frightened and mesmerized by the twitchy stranger who has burst in on her, railing about the trials of finding parking on potholed New York City streets, the invasiveness of phone messages and, in one particularly spectacular aria, the meaninglessness of polite interjections like "I'm sorry." As stage entrances go, it's a stunner."
    David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter

    "The ache for an absent artist permeates Lanford Wilson’s  Burn This, now receiving a finely-tuned Broadway revival that features incendiary performances by Adam Driver and Keri Russell, playing two lost souls in a powerful and passionate dance of denial."
    Frank Rizzo for Variety