It’s the height of the eighties and the dancer Anna (Keri Russell) and her roommate, the adman Larry (Brandon Uranowitz), live in a gorgeous warehouse apartment in lower Manhattan. This pair used to be a threesome until Robbie, another dancer, got in a motorboat accident. Lanford Wilson’s Burn This begins after the funeral, after Anna played his beard for the relatives. She’s back home, trying to make sense of the loss, when Pale (Adam Driver), Robbie’s brother, shows up. He’s abrasive, he’s a drunk, and he couldn’t be further from Anna’s erudite world, a Stanley Kowalski type from Montclair, New Jersey who comes up to the city to cry in her lap and take her to bed. Her boyfriend, the sci-fi screenwriter Burton (David Furr), is slow on the uptake.
Despite its adoration by acting students, Wilson’s play is nothing special. It’s fairly conventional drama—safe, easy, unchallenging. Driver is quite good, precise in his decisions, adept at both the vein-swelling moments and those of buffoonery, many of which involve frustration in shedding clothing. Uranowitz is also quite funny as the neurotic and melodramatic Larry, despite his character’s dated function: he is the gay man who exists solely to comfort and advise the straight woman. Worse, however, is the absolute lack of chemistry between Driver and Russell. The script indicates an animalistic attraction, one that is equal parts alluring and frightening. But their relationship appears out of nowhere, without much warning or conviction, and moves at an unconvincing speed. Sure, Burton’s a snooze, but what attracts Anna to Pale, a selfish tornado who comes knocking only to sow destruction in her life?
Perhaps the answer is in Robbie: “you could be his double,” Anna tells him when he first comes barging in. But this ghost is not as present as he should be, and most of our attention is drawn to the inevitably doomed love affair. Edna St. Vincent Millay, who wrote, “My candle burns at both ends; it will not last the night; but ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—it gives a lovely light!” was surely on Wilson’s mind as he wrote Burn This, steeped as the play is in metaphorical fire. Unfortunately, the light here is neither lovely nor bright.