By Maureen Lee Lenker
January 24, 2019 at 10:00 AM EST
Danielle Levitt

Burn This

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“You can imagine them in bed together.”

That’s what Tony-Award-winning director Michael Mayer has to say about the crackling first publicity image of Keri Russell and Adam Driver for their upcoming Broadway play, Burn This. “You feel this erotic and emotional connection very strongly,” he adds.

The Star Wars: Episode IX costars are returning to the stage for the first ever revival of Lanford Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning drama, which begins previews on March 15 with opening night set for April 16 at New York’s Hudson Theatre. Brandon Uranowitz (Falsettos) and David Furr (Noises Off) round out the cast.

Russell and Driver lead the action as Anna, a professional dancer and choreographer, and Pale, a coke-addicted hyper-active restaurant manager, who are brought together when Robbie, Anna’s dance partner and Pale’s brother, dies in a mysterious boating accident. The play follows the explosive chemistry between these two strangers as Wilson probes love, lust, and the power of raw attraction in his smoldering, award-winning play. The original production of Burn This starred John Malkovich and Joan Allen in Driver and Russell’s roles in a buzzy production that made the leap from its 1987 Off Broadway iteration to the Great White Way.

Mayer has circled around the play for some time, and was initially attached to an announced 2017 staging slated to star Jake Gyllenhaal which never came to fruition. The director finally gets to sink his teeth into the Pulitzer winner with a star-studded cast. “Lanford Wilson wrote a play 32 years ago for Adam Driver and Keri Russell to star in and they are going to do it justice,” he teases.

In advance of the debut of this steamy image, EW called up Mayer to get all the details on why Russell and Driver are the perfect duo to remount this play, why he’s drawn to provocative subject matter, and what makes Burn This one of a kind.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s start with this photograph — it’s quite sensual. Can you tell me more about the chemistry between Keri Russell and Adam Driver?
MICHAEL MAYER: We’re about a week into rehearsals now. Even from the very beginning, the two of them have a wonderful ease with each other. The fact that they know each other a little bit already helps enormously because you don’t have such a steep curve of physical comfort with each other, so that automatically gives us a leg up. They look fantastic with each other, and they have got clearly great affection for each other already. You couple that with the highly charged, emotional sexual tension of the scenes in the play. They’re acting out one of those in that picture a little bit.

You’ve been wanting to do this play for awhile, even announcing a production that was going to debut in early 2017 with Jake Gyllenhaal. What is it about this show that speaks to you so deeply that you’ve been circling around it for so long? 
Lanford Wilson is one of our best American playwrights, and this particular play of his, for me, captures the gigantic longing for connection and love that all of us feel. It’s this giant human need for love and to be loved and to risk everything for that one great love. There’s something very epic about the emotional life of the play that I find very compelling. I also think that Burn This really captures beautifully a moment in the history of New York City that is very special to me because it’s around the time when I first moved here and started living my life as an artist in New York. It’s set in the mid-80s, and there’s something incredible about the resilience of young people in the mid-80s at a moment where you turned around and everyone was dying of AIDS. I do feel like this was Lanford’s AIDS play. A young dancer dies at 24 and that is what generates the events of the play. I just remember so vividly that time — the sense of loss and the potential of loss of brilliant young people whose work wouldn’t live on and how it was for all of us trying to make our lives and fall in love and make work that meant something in the face of a real calamity and a terrible moment. Certainly politically, it was a very difficult time which also resonates now but that’s more under the surface. 

This is the first time it’s been revived since it debuted in the 1980s. Why do you think its taken so long and why is now the right time?
I would say that it takes a very particular group of actors to make the play live in its most vital and exciting, compelling form. We’re just really lucky in this particular moment to have an actor like Adam Driver. We’re reading the play now, and it feels like it was written for him – it’s an unbelievable match of character to actor. And to have Keri Russell play Anna, that’s reason enough to do this play.

Adam has this explosive, dangerous, unpredictable animal quality that really is this character Pale. And then you’ve got Keri, who is sensitive but sensible. You can see her weighing things trying to make the right decisions about her life, and yet, she’s also really screwed up because she’s just lost the most important person to her. She’s grieving, and at the same time, trying to maintain equilibrium, and that’s something that I think Keri does so magnificently. That feels very natural, and it feels like someone had her in mind when they wrote this — although, obviously, she was a child then.

Both Joan Allen and John Malkovich were heralded for their work in the original production. Have you reached out to them at all?
No, you know, I haven’t. It’s not an overly theatrical piece. It’s a very naturalistic piece of writing. It’s not flashy. It doesn’t have a lot of tricks up its sleeve really at all. It’s four human beings in one room over the course of a few months. The joy for me is that it isn’t like a big musical with lots of moving sets and lights. There’s no big video cues; there’s no razzle dazzle to it. The razzle dazzle is watching four superb actors play out this drama in front of us in a room. I’m much more interested in what Adam and Keri and David and Brandon have to say about the characters and what their feelings are about what happens in the play and what they’re going to bring to it than I am hearing about other people at a different time in a different production. Maybe after we do it, and it’s up and running, then that might be interesting. I saw that production when it was first on Broadway and they were fantastic. We’re really lucky — we have Tanya Berezin, who represents the estate of Lanford Wilson. She was one of his best friends, and she has been with us in rehearsals. She’s been a fantastic resource in terms of Lanford’s working process and helping us to interpret certain things. I just feel like we have a direct line to the lineage of it through her. 

Can you tell me a bit more about how the rehearsal process has been so far?
What we’re doing is a real luxury in the theater. There’s so many technical elements that you’re rushing to try to accomplish that it’s very rare to be able to spend day after day sitting around a table, reading through the scenes and discussing what’s going on in the scenes and the backstories of the characters, and trying to understand how the themes of the play emerge in the scene. It’s been a really great opportunity, and I think the actors have been appreciative of the fact that we’re not just jumping up and staging it right way.

You’re known for directing fairly provocative work and this play certainly falls under that designation – what is it about that more edgy material that calls to you as a director? And why do you think you’re someone who has a deft hand with it?
I would say that for me if you’re going to ask people to spend their good money to come and see a Broadway show — it’s not cheap to do that — and spend two hours of their life with you, what you have to deliver is you have to give them an experience that releases something in them. Or forces them to confront or incorporate the kind of emotions that maybe in their daily life they don’t have either the courage or the opportunity or the energy or the strength to do. It’s the history of drama to have this catharsis. Ever since the Greeks. I always want to push the audience to walk away knowing something about themselves that they didn’t know walking into the theater. That only happens when you have something at risk and when the stakes are high and when there’s a real emotion charge to it. This play is provocative in terms of what it means, what the risks are [that] we take to give ourselves over to real passionate love. There are casualties always.

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