When “Burn This” made its Broadway debut in 1987, it quietly shadowed the AIDS crisis. In 2002, its Off-Broadway commentary on grief was relevant in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. In 2019, the revived play feels awfully familiar.
“We were all living with a sense of unaccountable loss and anger,” director Michael Mayer, says of New York in the late ’80s when an HIV/AIDS epidemic swept the nation under the Reagan administration.
“This is how it feels right now; we’re still living in a political time that’s absolutely horrifying.”
Lanford Wilson’s play, originally starring John Malkovich and Joan Allen, has never been one for outright political commentary. Aside from the occasional quick-witted jab, the production set in New York circa 1987 never blatantly mentions any of the social and political connections drawn in its subtext.
Instead, “Burn This,” one of Broadway’s highly anticipated spring openings, tells a story that just might be timeless: at the core, it’s about loss, love and facing what terrifies us.
The two-and-a-half hour play opens with three friends mourning the death of their gay best friend, Robbie, in a Meatpacking loft.
Grief manifests itself in different ways for each and serves as the propelling force behind the stage’s central romance between Robbie’s roommate Anna (Keri Russell) and his brother Pale (Adam Driver).
The “Star Wars”/”Girls” alum joins “The Americans” actress for her Broadway debut, filling their joint scenes with long-winded monologues (some lasting up to 25 minutes) and outbursts of rage.
Driver’s Pale carries the show with heightening, erratic emotions. Though Driver almost always shares stage time with Russell, his intensity, at times, makes it feel as if he’s the only one in the theater.
“The feelings are huge and deep and the despair feels bottomless,” Mayer says. “Adam Driver is one of the great actors of our generation. This role fits him quite brilliantly. It doesn’t sound written when it comes out of his mouth.”
Amid the chaos caused by Driver’s Pale, Anna’s roommate Larry (Brandon Uranowitz) provides a much-needed “pillar of order” and comedic relief.
“He has the sharpest wit of anyone I’ve ever encountered, even though he’s not real,” says Uranowitz (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”). “This play is full of characters chaotically searching for meaning in their lives and he’s cool, calm and collected while everyone else is a storm.”
A hurricane, more precisely.
The romance between Pale and Anna is passionate, tumultuous and forbidden. When Anna meets her late best friend’s brother, she’s comfortable in a detached relationship with a writer named Burton (David Furr).
“We all have to deal with compromises we may or may not have made in life and comfort versus risk,” Furr says. “That never goes away. It’s what these four deal with and what people are dealing with now, as they were in the late ‘80s.”
Ultimately, a series of one-night stands force the toxic pair to reflect upon the choices they’ve both made and face what fears them: a love that’s honestly raw.
“It’s about getting to that place of feeling like I’m terrified. I don’t want this,” Mayer says. “I don’t think they want this. But they need it to happen. They have to be together as much as it’s going to be hard.”
Mayer hopes the production leaves the audience with their own burning desire to push themselves to uncomfortable heights. “I want them to leave asking themselves, Do I have that kind of love? A mega-passion? Am I being as honest as I can be?”
“Burn This” plays a limited run at The Hudson Theatre. Dates are set through July 14.