Theater review: 'Burn This' at the Mark Taper Forum
This New York story famously premiered at the Mark Taper Forum in 1987 with John Malkovich (and his wig) making an indelible impression as Pale, a wired New Jersey misanthrope wearing a chip the size of a garbage scow on his well-tailored shoulder. Edward Norton managed to make the role his own in a 2002 revival at New York's Signature Theatre, but Pale, like Stanley Kowalski, is one of those fantasy bruisers that might work better in memory than downstage center.
Still, it’s worth having another look at the play, especially since the recent passing of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Wilson. But the Taper’s new production fails to generate much heat, despite the best intentions of its cast.
“Burn This” begins in a state of grief: In the fall of 1986, dancer-choreographer Anna (Zabryna Guevara) and Larry (Brooks Ashmanskas), are blindsided by the accidental death of their loft mate, Anna’s gay dance partner, Robbie. Creatively and emotionally adrift, ambivalent about her relationship with wealthy screenwriter Burton (Ken Barnett), Anna finds herself drawn to Robbie’s stormy brother, Pale (Adam Rothenberg), who turns up at all hours in search of solace, booze and an audience. Anna should probably “just marry [Burton] and buy things,” as Larry puts it, but what’s a girl to do? That crazy Pale just keeps taking off his pants, throwing punches and crying — a killer move in the misunderstood male’s playbook — on Anna’s sofa.
Ralph Funicello’s magnificent loft set, with its soaring cast iron architecture and airy space is almost too beautiful to be, in Pale’s word, “haunted,” and that sense of pleasure muffling struggle is one of the things that’s wrong with this revival.
Underneath Pale’s entertaining bluster about the evils of parking in the city and faking it in bed, “Burn This” is about four people disconnected from their true selves. Overly influenced by other dancers, Anna literally doesn’t know how to move — on stage or in her own life — as herself. Like the pinned butterflies she encounters visiting Robbie’s oblivious family, she’s struggling to break free and fly. Burton fears losing mainstream success to write something authentic, or examining his deeper sexual impulses. Larry gave up on dance to become an ad man, and Pale married early and disastrously and now numbs himself with long hours of restaurant work and substance abuse.
Malkovich’s outsized performance -- he also played the character in the later Broadway production -- may have done an odd disservice to the play, masking its real protagonist. After all, bad boys serve a vital function in female development: that sexy outsider mirrors what’s inside (but unexpressed in) many younger women — a desire to push against what Anna calls “prevailing opinion.” Wilson is more interested in Pale’s screeds and Burton’s intriguing flirtation with Larry, yet dramatically, the play wants to be Anna’s.
But with choices that consistently favor comedy over characterization, director Nicholas Martin has staged a predictable rom-com. Without a sense of urgency, the weaknesses of “Burn This” show through: a premise that fell off the back of a Lifetime Television truck, and an annoyingly coy attitude toward sexual orientation. The result lacks real eroticism, discovery or stakes. There are laughs, and the occasional frisson, yet it’s hard to tell what Martin is trying to say with this revival.
To borrow a phrase from a colleague of mine, the production doesn’t agitate from an essence. And its eagerness to be liked is the opposite of Pale’s modus operandi: a reflexive urge to burn through American hypocrisies. (Christmas, courtesy, four-ply toilet paper). “Half the people you see on the street don’t mean a thing they’re doin’,” Pale tells Anna. “Hug up some bitch, don’t mean nothin’ to them. Bitch smilin’ up into his eyes, have more fun pushin’ the bastard through a sausage grinder.”
“Burn This” isn’t a great play but it’s a good vehicle for actors, with enough strong monologues to anchor an evening. (And launch a thousand auditions; you could almost hear actors in the opening night audience mouthing certain speeches along with Rothenberg.) The show belongs to a group of accessible misfit romances of the 1980s: Terrence McNally’s “Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune” (1987) and John Patrick Shanley’s “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea” (1984). Noisy courtships, launched by a cocksure guy who wins the heart of a reluctant woman. But while McNally and Shanley kept their pas de deux well under two hours, “Burn This” is two and a half, and doesn’t, in this version, make much use of its extended stay.
That’s partly because the performers are miscast. Which is not to say they aren’t appealing -- they’re just in the wrong play. Barnett, lanky and debonair, has a musical theatre buoyancy that pushes Burton’s privileged angst toward the inconsequential. The skilled Ashmanskas, overdoing the swishy sidekick, belongs to the broader world of “The Producers.”
The striking Guevara has a dancer’s physicality, but her voice and demeanor belong to someone who has long ago moved beyond Anna’s uncertainties. The actress is strongest when she doesn’t strain for drama, particularly when reacting to one of Pale’s outrageous comments about her bra size or hair. Rothenberg, who looks a little like Willem Dafoe’s younger brother, has charisma and the right urban grace. But he’s still mastering Pale’s longer arias — the ends of his sentences are sometimes swallowed by the Taper’s acoustics — and he conveys more wounded puppy than snarling beast. Neither lead is a naturally combative performer, and their quieter moments together are among the play’s most genuine. It’s just the hot mess of their meet cute that feels manufactured.
-- Charlotte Stoudt
“Burn This” Mark Taper Forum, the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 1. $20-$65. Contact: (213) 628-2772 or www.CenterTheatreGroup.org. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.
Photo: Top, Zabryna Guevara, left, and Adam Rothenberg in "Burn This." Lower, Ken Barnett, Rothenberg and Guevara. Credit: Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times.