About midway through Burn This, dancer-turned-choreographer Anna talks about a piece she’s been working on, “a pas de deux for two couples”; “pas de quatre,” her boyfriend counters, half-absentmindedly.
It’s a throwaway moment, but a corrective worth putting to the perception of the play itself; nearly all the press for the current Broadway revival focuses on the two Hollywood stars at its center, Keri Russell and Adam Driver. There they are, bodies intertwined, gazing steamily out from Playbills and posters, or speaking in countless interviews (including one in EW), about the work of reviving Lanford Wilson’s 32-year-old drama and finding the locus of their love story — these two combative opposites who fight and feint and still fall hard, in spite of themselves.
In director Michael Mayer’s kinetic, consistently engaging production, though, it really is a piece for quatre: David Furr, as Anna’s swaggering screenwriter boyfriend, Burton, and Brandon Uranowitz, as her wisecracking roommate Larry, aren’t just foils; they’re fully formed humans who may not be part of the story’s central romance (or at least not on the winning end of the equation), but who consistently give the almost pathologically intense deux at its center light and air.
As the action opens in an industrial downtown Manhattan loft, Russell’s Anna has just returned from the funeral of their third roommate, Robbie, who perished along with his boyfriend Dom in a freak boating accident. At the service, she’s essentially let his large Catholic family infer that she was his girlfriend; they either truly believe her, or or just want to.
Someone who doesn’t seem to buying the straight-Robbie narrative, though, is his 12-years-older brother, a splenetic New Jersey restaurant manager who goes by Pale (Driver). Weeks later, he shows up at Anna and Larry’s apartment at 5 a.m., drunk and raging. He says he’s there to collect a few of Robbie’s things, though he seems much more interested in drinking Anna’s brandy and breaking down her walls, in every physical and figurative sense of that word.
Pale is a fantastically chewy part, somewhere between Marlon Brando and a silverback gorilla on the scale of raging alpha-male id; if he had one of those lizard frills to fan out or a caveman’s club to swing, he would. And Driver owns every moment of it with awesome physicality, whether he’s ranting about parking spaces, howling in psychic pain, or just taking note of his own internal thermostat (“I got like, a toaster oven I carry around with me in my belly someplace”).
He can pivot from rage to tears to cracking jokes in a moment, turning a question into a confrontation and an insult (nearly) into a compliment. Uranowitz, Tony nominated for An American in Paris, tends to meet that fire with arch bemusement, bringing wit and real pathos to the familiar gay-best-friend role; and Furr (Noises Off, The Importance of Being Earnest) works hard to make his well-born Burton more than just a bastion of oblivious white-male privilege.
Russell, a lauded TV star for more than half her life in shows like Felicity and The Americans, looks gorgeous in a succession of Scarface-chic ensembles — a fuchsia party dress, a liquid satin negligee. But unlike the Julliard-trained Driver, she doesn’t seem entirely comfortable on stage; she tends to come at the dialogue hard, either racing through her lines or bludgeoning them into submission in a voice that sounds several rungs below her natural register.
Her rhythms start to soften into something more natural and vulnerable as the second act goes on, but it felt, at least on this preview night, like she hadn’t quite mastered her take on the part. (Maybe she had extra nerves — particularly acting out Burn’s more explicitly romantic scenes — with her partner and Americans costar, Matthew Rhys, sitting in a prime seat, center left.)
To be fair too, Mayer’s signature piece isn’t exactly an easy entry point for a Broadway newbie; its torrents of prose can be sort of a firehose, and the emotional torques come hard and fast. Scenic designer Derek McLane keeps the staging spacious and clean, though, and the soundtrack honors the play’s 1987 setting with various on-point music cues (Roxette, Hall & Oates, a recurring riff on Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire”).
Driver moves through it all like his own weather system, maybe the most entertaining hurricane onstage this year so far. It’s too bad that the love story between Anna and Pale never completely convinces us that they are in fact, on fire; it sparks and smolders, but it’s not quite that kind of burn. B+