Some plays blaze on their own, while others need the igniting force of a talented cast to get the light and heat started. Lanford Wilson's 1987 play Burn This, now being revived by the Signature Theatre Company at the Union Square Theatre, is one of the latter. Sadly, despite a handsome production, someone forgot to bring the matches.
That's surprising news indeed from any production starring Edward Norton, but it certainly applies here. Norton has been widely acclaimed for a bevy of intense roles in films like Primal Fear, American History X, and Fight Club, and therefore seems like almost ideal casting for his role here. Pale is a restaurant manager who always seems on the brink of either blowing his top or breaking down in tears (or perhaps both at the same time). After arriving at the Manhattan loft where Anna (Catherine Keener) shared lived with his recently deceased gay brother, he surrenders his emotions to her even as he terrifies her.
But, inexplicably, Norton isn't terrifying. He's funny. He bears a real self-assuredness that is necessary for the character, but his Pale lacks the words to express it and the physical heft to back up his assertions, so he covers it all up with humor. Norton seems to find the laughs hidden in every line and brings them right to the surface. Since Keener and the play's other two actors, Ty Burrell as her would-be boyfriend Burton and Dallas Roberts as her remaining gay roommate Larry, are already treating the play as a comedy, the first act of Burn This is remarkably funny indeed.
But the production turns serious in the second act. When Burrell and Norton square off against each other for Anna's affections, it seems to come out of nowhere. These two people, who were having such a great time until now, suddenly want to kill each other? And Norton, for the first time in his visible adult professional career, doesn't look like he could kill anyone if he wanted to! There is no reason for anyone to be afraid of Norton here.
This all makes this production of Burn This entertaining, but more than a little nonsensical. One can't help but feel bad for Keener, who fits her role perfectly, finding seemingly every emotional layer and exciting nuance in Anna's character. She falters only in not sufficiently explaining from where Anna's devotions are derived, whether they're to Pale, his brother, or dance. In all other ways she succeeds mightily, and creates a viscerally effective one-sided relationship between the Pale Norton should be but never is. Roberts gives a laid-back performance and is very, very funny. Burrell is baffling, his sexuality highly ambiguous (despite his protestations in the second act), and any possible romantic attachment with Anna quite hard to believe.
So, most of these difficulties can be pinned down to director James Houghton. He had an intriguing script, and maybe even some decent ideas, but sanded down the edges of the play so much, it can't even begin to cut deep enough to make a strong emotional impression. This can be seen even in the set, where Christine Jones's work is immensely attractive, but so physically immense that all heat the characters might generate dissipates before it can reach the audience. Pat Collins's simple but attractive lighting comes across the best.
Perhaps Norton would be more at home in a film version of Burn This? It's difficult to say, since more ideal casting for the role would be difficult to imagine (aside from John Malkovich, the role's originator). Norton simply doesn't live up to his potential here, and while the rest of the production survives, it's far from all it could be. Another actor as Pale might elevate this production closer to the excitement and energy it needs to sear off the stage. As it stands now, the sparks are infrequent at best.
Signature Theatre Company