Lanford Wilson’s “Burn This” explores the pain involved in both grieving and loving, but much of the play’s emotional tinder has gone up in smoke at the Union Square Theater, where the Signature Theater Co. is presenting the 1987 play as the first production in its season dedicated to Wilson.
Audiences coming to check out — or worship — a couple of indie picture icons, Edward Norton and Catherine Keener, the latter making her New York stage debut, may not be disappointed by the evening’s tepid temperature, but those with vivid memories of the premiere staging at the late Circle Repertory Co., starring a luminous Joan Allen and a sullen, seething John Malkovich, will probably find James Houghton’s production to be a rather pale imitation (forgive the pun).
A potentially searing play about two wounded souls struggling to rekindle their connection comes across here as a fairly standard romantic comedy about opposites attracting, interrupted on occasion by somewhat surprising bursts of tears. (Intermittently you almost feel you could be watching a more upscale “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.”)
The play was written when the AIDS epidemic was claiming victims in terrible numbers, prematurely introducing a generation to the universal but always individual — and often isolating — process of mourning. Many New Yorkers are, alas, enduring the same painful experience at the moment, which is an incidental reason why this production’s failure to extract the play’s full measure of cathartic emotion is disappointing.
It’s not actually AIDS but a boating accident that has claimed the life of Robbie, who is the beloved friend and roommate of dancer-choreographer Anna (Keener) and the distant younger brother of Jimmy, also known as Pale (Norton). The play charts the repercussions of this loss in the lives of Anna and Pale, who are ineluctably drawn together by their devastation, although the loquacious but emotionally inarticulate Pale, a guy’s guy from Jersey who, like the rest of his family, had conflicted feelings about his gay brother (“fags” and “fruits” are his terms of choice), can hardly bring himself to specifically acknowledge the sources of his anguish.
As the months go by, Anna finds herself withdrawing from her amiable, rich screenwriter boyfriend, Burton (Ty Burrell, excellent in a boilerplate Thankless Role), despite the less than cordial behavior of Pale, who tends to arrive in the wee hours in a mood of belligerence fueled by brandy. Their encounters take place in Anna’s spacious but grungy loft apartment, superbly rendered by designer Christine Jones and delicately lit by Pat Collins.
Pale is entirely inappropriate for Anna, of course — brutish and unsophisticated — but underneath her dismissals (“We’re apples and oranges”) is an attraction too profound to be denied. It’s sexual at first, but in the end far more than that: The depth of Pale’s pain finds an echo in hers, and despite her fears, Anna must decide if she has the courage to allow their intermittent bouts of mutual consolation to become something more enduring.
Unfortunately, the bursts of feeling that whip through these two souls like tropical storms, his revealed in attacks of bitterness or tears, hers in more subtle ways, don’t register very strongly here. Keener is a muted stage presence — she doesn’t exactly have the natural physical expressiveness of a dancer, to begin with. She easily limns Anna’s diffidence, as well as the frustration and free-floating anger that keep her on edge through most of the first act. (Anna is enraged at Robbie and his boyfriend, Dominick, for putting themselves in danger, and even more enraged at having had to play the role of grieving widow at the funeral.) But the character’s natural warmth and the flood of untapped feeling that Pale’s desperate need brings out in her are hard to detect beneath the brittle surface of Keener’s Anna; just what this turbulent soul has stirred up inside her is difficult to detect.
Then again, as played with no small dose of brash charm by Norton, Pale is hardly the tormented figure those who saw (or heard about) the original production might be expecting. In Norton’s antic, dryly funny and undeniably entertaining performance, Pale comes across less like a haunted Flying Dutchman type (the allusion is in the text) than an overcaffeinated neurotic straight out of a Woody Allen movie — this despite the character’s stated disdain for coffee.
One would not, of course, want a carbon copy of Malkovich’s brooding turn, and Norton deserves praise for undertaking the challenge of reinterpreting a role so powerfully associated with another actor. But the manner in which Norton turns Pale’s disconnected riffs on parking places, bar brawls and the life and times of a piece of toilet paper into veritable standup routines recalibrates the play’s emotional temperature for good, like it or not. (The audience, most of whom seem to have come just to see Norton, certainly likes it.) And when Keener’s Anna comes out with lines like, “I think you’re dangerous,” they strike a slightly false note; Norton’s small-scaled Pale may be an emotional brat, but threatening? Hardly.
Lacking performances that elucidate the powerful feelings always simmering underneath the prickly give-and-take between the two main characters, Wilson’s play — written in scenes that unfold in real time — feels overextended, clocking in at a languorous three hours. There are plenty of engaging stretches of dialogue — Burton’s ever-more-relevant screed against the state of American moviemaking (“There areno good movies”), the perpetually witty angst of Anna’s other roommate, Larry, albeit as delivered with just a bit too much flouncing by Dallas Roberts.
And Wilson is beautifully but always naturally articulate on a number of subjects: the way age and experience close us off to possibility; the emotional distance that can underlie even the most intimate exchanges; the ultimate incompatibility of the most “compatible” lovers; the difficulty of rationally parsing the nature of the heart’s impulses (amusingly illustrated when a shaken Anna keeps demanding that Larry make sure Pale has actually left the building; at first it seems out of fear, but ultimately it’s out of regret). The play is infused above all with a sad wisdom about the heavy lifting required to forge the kind of deep connections that really matter — and the way they can so easily be sundered, by death or distance or mere caution.
But the dramatic power of “Burn This” really lies in what goes unspoken, in the invisible currents of feeling that draw Anna and Pale together. When, in the play’s waning moments, Anna and Pale both announce “I don’t want this” even as they draw closer together, it’s possible to note the irony of the moment without experiencing any of its emotional force.