A quarter-century ago, the late Lanford Wilson’s “Burn This” premiered at the Mark Taper Forum under Marshall Mason’s sizzling direction, whose undeniable fireworks caused the script’s sentimentality to stand out in greater relief. It was exciting, but the eventual stickiness became almost unwatchable. In a revival at the same venue, helmer Nicholas Martin sands down the jagged edges so the sentiment is all of a piece. The result is pleasantly watchable, but almost completely unexciting.
Wilson’s starting point is a type he knew well, the settled Greenwich Village artiste. The high-strung Anna (Zabryna Guevara) has free rein to dance and choreograph and fret about both, ensconced as she is in an enormous loft with two gay (i.e. enabling and non-threatening) roommates and squired by screenwriter Burton (Ken Barnett), just interesting enough to tap into her world and just boring enough to defer any move toward commitment.
But the play instantly tears at her protective coating. Beloved roommate Robbie has died in a boating accident, and bursting into her loft and life is his older brother Pale (Adam Rothenberg). Gun-toting, profane, contemptuous of the “artsy-fartsy,” he’s the utter antithesis of her downtown world, yet his physicality (and resemblance to the lost Robbie) force her to confront her heretofore safe choices, and wonder about that which she truly desires.
Mason presided over memorable confrontations between Joan Allen’s immovable object and John Malkovich’s irresistible force. His bellowed “Hey!” still resonating across the decades, Malkovich made this New Jersey restaurant manager a true urban-jungle predator, one whom we could never be sure wouldn’t do damage to our fragile, deeply troubled princess. (His threats are explicit in the text.) The evening was a nail-biter, even if you couldn’t quite accept how it ended up.
As a result of Martin’s evident determination to bring the play’s strains into alignment, no nails are bitten now. The talented Rothenberg, who blessedly lacks Malkovich’s distracting androgynous quality, offers a Pale who is believable, tough, utterly masculine — and not dangerous for a nanosecond. There’s no worry about his explosions, and he never connects on a gut level with Guevara’s likable Anna, who offers surface emotion without a grieving center. (Unlike Allen, she at least moves like a dancer, from the ankles up anyway; she ought to pick up those feet.)
Their scenes play as standard opposites-attract romantic comedy; in evaluating her suitors she might as well be Doris Day torn between Rock Hudson and Tony Randall, especially since Barnett plays against Burton’s stolidity to emote with arms and body and further dilute the scripted contrasts. (The silent blows struck in Steve Rankin’s fight choreography might encapsulate the entire production.)
Then there’s surviving roommate Larry, a cynical ad man. Lou Liberatore copped a Tony for his wicked, almost feral turn as a bitchy helpmeet; it was clear how, under his influence, Anna could be petrified in her East Village cocoon. But there’s no wickedness here. A pirouetting, flutey Brooks Ashmanskas earns his many laughs as a genuine audience favorite, but the role becomes the sexless, slightly pathetic “gay-best-friend-of” stereotype one had hoped was permanently excised from the culture.
Everything about this “Burn This” is directed toward feel-good rather than feel-deep, the conversational over the eloquent. Even lighting designer Ben Stanton may have caught the scent in the wind: An opening pastel tableau beautifully frames Guevara curled up in silent pain, but the cues soon seem to devolve into lights-up/lights-down on switches.
Wilson’s title refers to thoughts so profoundly intimate, the paper on which they’re scribed needs to be consigned to fire. Someone may yet find a recipe for balancing the terrifying and the heartwarming in “Burn This,” but this lightly enjoyable, ultimately disposable attempt doesn’t make a case for there being much in the script to inspire a struck match.