Performance Network aims to start a fire with 'Burn This'
photo by Sean Carter | courtesy of Performance Network
“When (director Ray Schultz and I) sat down to talk about upcoming projects, I think I just mentioned that I was thinking about maybe doing a Lanford Wilson piece, because he’d just died, and Ray immediately said, ‘Well, “Burn This” would be fantastic, and I’d love to direct it,’” said Performance Network artistic director David Wolber. “And that’s one I’d wanted to do. ‘Burn This’ is a show that’s been on my short list for a long time. It’s a great play.”
“I saw the original production (in 1987), and it made an enormous impression on me, from an emotional point of view,” said Schultz. “ This is a play I’ve always wanted to be associated with in some way.”
Focusing on an up-and-coming choreographer (Anna) who, following the death of her roommate, gets entangled with his coke-snorting, hyperactive restaurant manager brother, Pale, “Burn This” tells the story of four people who are forced, by tragedy, to reconsider their identities and relationships.
The original Broadway production starred Joan Allen (Anna) and John Malkovich, who made Pale larger-than-life.“Pale is a very extreme character, and part of what the play is about is how these three people respond to his extremity,” said Schultz.
And while some critics, in retrospect, have wondered if Malkovich’s outsized depiction of Pale did a disservice to the quartet nature of “Burn This,” Wolber said, “In some ways, I feel like that’s saying, does Stanley overwhelm ‘Streetcar’? And in some ways, yeah, he does, and that’s part of the point. There’s this very dynamic, charismatic, and slightly offensive character who comes in and does all those things. He interrupts their lives, and he’s a force.”
For Wolber, part of “Burn This”’s appeal involves the Tennessee Williams-esque lyricism of its prose, while for Schulz, having lived in New York in the 1980s—the place and time that is the play’s setting—makes the play an almost visceral experience, since, in Wolber’s words, the place is both “very much of its time and also timeless.”
“I think the 1980s are really present in the play, in terms of this spiritual and kind of psychic malaise,” said Schulz. “ Although it’s never talked about directly in play, I think has an effect on the characters and what’s going on with them. And in a sense, it’s a different kind of malaise that we’re going through now, but it’s similar in terms of—it’s a very uncertain time we’re living in right now, and the characters—part of their unsettled nature is the fact that they’re living in a very, very difficult time and just the catalyst of the narrative, the fact that these people are really dealing with the shock of death and loss—it sort of hangs over the play.”
The play’s title comes from a line spoken by Anna’s longtime screenwriter boyfriend, Burton, who says, in regard to the creation of art, “Make it personal, tell the truth, and then write ‘Burn this’ on it.” In this way, “Burn This” can be seen as a play about the process of making art in all its forms.
“It’s a very meta play,” said Wolber, noting the presence of a choreographer and writer in the mix, as well as a graphic designer, which Wilson was before he became a playwright. “It’s about itself in some ways.”
“To really put yourself out there as an artist, you have to write or create as if you can burn it and not be afraid of doing what needs to be done,” said Schulz. “ Anna and Burton and Larry - they’re thinking people more than feeling people. And Pale is certainly nothing if not a big blob of feeling, and I think in terms of feeling the emotions, there’s something about the idea of burning. That your feelings have to burn through, so to speak. I can’t help but feel that Wilson comes down heavily on the side of being about feeling things rather than thinking things.”