I first heard about Langford Wilson’s play Burn This from my mom. In her life, she’s seen a fair number of broadway plays, but she told me that I absolutely had to go see this one; because it is among the only shows to really stick with her – and it’s been 30 years. So, I looked into it… and saw that it was being led by Adam Freaking Driver.
So I went.
Hello everyone, anyone, and welcome to The Week I Review. You can call me A Guy Who Takes Life Advice From Kylo Ren (But Not In the Way You Think), and today I’m talking about the current Broadway production of Burn This.
Though I actually saw the show a little bit ago, I wanted to discuss it the same week that I put out my review of Nassim because both of them trade heavily on celebrity. That one in having a different person of note at each performance, and this one by plastering those noteworthy names all over the place.
If you see a lot of such shows, you notice that something kind of odd happens when a famous-outside-of-the-theatre-community person comes onstage: the audience claps. They don’t do this for regular stage actors, of course, but when Tony Shaloub comes on in The Band’s Visit, Daniel Craig appears in Othello, Chris Evans walks into Lobby Hero, or any of the myriad others, their appearance forces a pause because the Royal We, I guess, want famous people to know that we know that they are famous – in case they were worried about that. In case they thought we had come to see the recent revival of True West for any reason other than to watch Paul Dano and Ethan Hawke.
But here’s the thing: Mark Ruffalo is a great on screen, but he noticeably flubbed multiple lines when I saw him in The Price. Monk is lovely, but Tony Shalloub’s accent in The Band’s Visit was distracting as hell. Keri Russell may have been an anchor in The Americans, but some of her most emotional moments in Burn This just fall flat.
And yet, the presence of these stars in starring roles only grows. It feels like every new show that opens does so with someone you have probably heard of in the leading role – and maybe several of them. Most are limited runs, going exactly as long as folks can take before their next big shoot.
And it’s not like this is totally new. Even the 1987 production of Burn This was led by John Malkovich, already an Emmy winner and Academy Award nominee by that time, although he actually got his start in the theatre and had two Obie awards before he touched the screen. But it feels exponential now.
In a way, Broadway has become the new indie cinema – where quote-unquote “Serious” actors go when they’re tired of the Hollywood machine. And that’s kinda frustrating, because as discussed earlier, they’re not always the right people for the job. You dig through New York’s enormous talent pool and you’re going to find someone whose blood, sweat, and tears are in the theatre. But acting on camera is a massively different skill from performing for an audience, and I think some of these household names overestimate themselves. Broadway marketing teams, on the other hand, are content to let that be.
Why? Because I saw Burn This in large part because I wanted to see Adam Driver. So… I’m a hypocrite. How can I really complain about the rise of celebrities onstage when I paid to see Daniel Craig and David Oyelowo in Othello because gosh darn if I didn’t have to see Daniel Craig be Iago. Sometimes they really are worth it, as in Othello.
Adam Driver here is another example, and how couldn’t he have been? He is one of the most interesting actors working today, killing it both as a whiny baby boy in Star Wars and a poet / bus driver in Paterson.
In person, Driver is larger than I realized – especially when put beside the unexpectedly tiny Keri Russell, and the oversized suits just make him a big ol’ presence. And, ya know, he was present long before got onstage. (Conceptually.)
Because his absence from the first scene is conspicuous: Driver gets top billing, so you may reasonably expect his character, Pale, to be there at the outset – or at least soon after. But Pale isn’t technically the protagonist of this show: Keri Russell’s Anna is. She is the center around which the drama takes place: it’s her roommate, Larry; her romantic interest, Burton; and the brother of her deceased other roommate/dance partner (Pale) who round out the cast. She has more stage time than anyone else…
But it’s still not her show. Do you remember A Star Is Born, that movie from last year? It was a big deal. The one ostensibly about the birth of a star but actually about her failure of a husband’s reaction to her success? This reminded me of that. Though not quite as bad, Anna is ultimately a pretty passive entity who gets to say a lot but not really do much.
A Star is Born is a story told four-plus times, dating back to at least 1937 and arguably even earlier. This one most closely relates to its previous incarnation, from 1976. But there is a fundamental difference: A Star Is Born 2018 is not the script of A Star Is Born 76 reenacted.
But Burn This 2019 is. Such is the nature of theatre revivals. There may be tweaks to language, but the text on stage three decades ago is the text I saw as well.
No one is making new movies with 30-plus-year-old scripts.
Even the one real exception to this rule, that Shakespeare’s many-hundred-years-old words end up on both stage and screen, exemplifies this fundamental difference between the artforms. It’s telling that the transplanting of language and time in Baz Luhrman’s Romeo Plus Juliet stood out as it did. That Othello I keep mentioning was set in a military barracks in a time when soldiers literally play guitar hero onstage while the audience goes to their seats. And last year, Shakespeare in the Park’s Julius Caesar made a whole bunch of people who didn’t understand the show angry by literally dressing it into a more modern political context.
This is par for the course onstage, and it is easy for Theatre to have such temporal fluidity. A movie, however, is a facsimile, attempting to actually depict rather than just represent. And depictions of the 1980s made in the 2010s just don’t quite match those made in the 80s. Because 80s films were 80s by necessity (or, at least, convenience); now, it’s a deliberate choice.
The current production of Burn This is set in 1987 by convenience as well, because it was written in that present. And outside of some awkward and distracting musical transitions, there’s not much to highlight its time period. As there shouldn’t be; it doesn’t *really* matter that it’s in the 80s. Though plenty has changed since then, a whole lot has stayed exactly the same, and this show is still relevant thirty years later. I mean, there’s a reason they decided to bring it back. And, all things considered, it’s great. (My mom was quite right.)
As much as I wish Anna was a more active participant in her own drama, I can’t deny the quality of Lanford Wilson’s dialogue or Michael Mayer’s direction. Or the absolute force of nature that is Adam Driver. From the second he bangs on the door from offstage at the start of the second scene, he commands all the attention. But his co-stars are all worthy of praise, even Russell, who nails it about 97% of the time.
I laughed, I was moved (though not quite to tears), I was shocked by the single most realistic stage punch I have ever seen followed by the second most realistic stage punch I have ever seen.
I mean, it’s just a quality way to see Adam Driver do his thing for a few hours.
It’s unfortunate that that’s the conclusion I draw – that that’s really what I was there for. I don’t like this trend, but I can’t really fault them for it. I’m part of the problem.
Eight-Point-Three out of Ten