When Lanford Wilson introduced “Burn This” in 1987, mourning was a way of life for many overwhelmed by the devastation caused by AIDS, especially in the artistic community. Though the disease is not part of Wilson’s narrative (Robbie, a gay dancer, and his lover die in a boating accident), a profound ache of loss permeates the play as it explores how grief can immobilize the body and desensitize the heart.
The two leading characters — Robbie’s mysterious and mesmerizing brother Pale and Anna, who was Robbie’s roommate and dance partner — spend the play in a dance of denial. But it’s clear these sad, tortured souls desperately need each other for another shot at life.
Problem is, that fact is clear to the audience a lot quicker than the 2½ hours it takes the leading characters to reach the same conclusion in the downtown loft apartment. The padding threatens to take a dynamic and defensive tango and turn it into a hip, eccentric romantic comedy of opposites attracting.
But Wilson is such an adept writer that he never quite loses our interest, even as the play goes off course. The playwright continually punches the script with sharp-eyed, wicked observations (mostly delivered by Anna and Robbie’s gay roommate Larry). And Wilson has written some amazing star-turn riffs (mostly for the anti-urban, blue-collar Pale) that in the right hands can be turned into magnificent theatrical arias.
But to make this fascinating, angry, funny and flawed play work for an audience requires two actors of incendiary power and presence.
The Huntington Theater Co. production, staged by Susan Fenichell, gets one with Michael T. Weiss’ dazzling and deft perf.
Weiss, best known as the star of TV’s “The Pretender,” makes Pale’s posturing, machismo and mood swings natural and not just actor-audition bravado. In the role famously originated by John Malkovich (and played in an Off Broadway revival two years ago by Edward Norton), Weiss gives Pale an innate sexiness, humor and sensitivity that make Anna’s odd attraction to him — and later compulsions — believable.
Weiss is compelling whenever he is onstage, and the stage seems a rather lonely place when he is not.
As Anna, Anne Torsiglieri lacks that fire within. The role itself is part of the problem. Anna begins the play wounded, confused and angry, but unlike Pale, who rages, cries, sings and recites poetry with a blaze of charisma, Anna is, well, pale by comparison; sparks don’t exactly fly between the two. She also has to portray that dreaded role, the “artist,” and must be convincing as a choreographer who felt she and Robbie were destined “to change the face of dance in this loft.”
As Larry, Nat DeWolf nicely adds color, contrast and commentary to the proceedings. DeWolf is expert at Wilson’s most delicious dialogue, tossing off the golden lines with the smooth assurance of someone who doesn’t have to show the strain.
As Anna’s boyfriend Burton, a wealthy screenwriter, Brian Hutchison manages to be sympathetic and appealing, but it is clear that this pleasant enough sell-out is no match for a more explosive, messy life force. (A short, clumsily staged fight between the two men is indicative of the romantic duel for Anna’s affections.) For all the quirky details Wilson gives the character, Burton exists merely to provide the play with a romantic triangle and fill it out to multi-act length, but the effort is forced on both counts.
Still, “Burn This” resonates in raw and instinctive ways that often defy logic and dramaturgy. The play’s final tender moments provide a sense of closure to a period of deep mourning for the characters — and for an era — and allow the flickering embers of life to ignite again.