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Burning

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Burning
Andrew Garman, Evan Johnson, and Danny Mastrogiorgio.
Photo by Monique Carboni.

Some blurring of the lines between comedy and drama is to be expected in any play, but seldom does it occur to the degree it does in Burning. Thomas Bradshaw's new play, which just opened at the Acorn Theatre in a production from The New Group, is so tonally toxic, it's unclassifiable. If this is a serious story about fractured lives interlocking across two turbulent generations and two continents, why is practically every scene played for laughs? If this is a comedy, should so many of the "jokes" derive from subjects like drug abuse, statutory rape, adultery, and incest? It's impossible to tell whether this is the most daring effort The New Group has ever undertaken, the most absurd, or both at once.

The only thing that makes this terminally confused show concretely fascinating is that it happens to be about shattered and jumbled identities itself. Of the three intertwining stories on which Bradshaw focuses, none of the major players know who they're supposed to be or why.

Chris, who moves from San Francisco to New York after his mother's death from a cocaine overdose in the early 1980s, is a gay boy with dreams of acting who doesn't know how terrible he is, but ends up living (and cavorting) with a famous actor and his professional and personal partner, Jack and Simon, in Greenwich Village. Franklin is a 19-year-old black man in the present day who has just lost his own mother to a drug overdose and decides to reconnect with his cousin, Peter, a painter who goes to extravagant lengths to pretend he isn't black, and his white British wife, Josephine. Then there's Michael, a neo-Nazi who lives in Berlin and cares for his adolescent sister Katrin in the wake of their parents' deaths in a car crash a year earlier he works at an art gallery. Uh oh.

Certainly this would be enough for most plays, but Bradshaw doesn't stop there. He also introduces a subplot about Jack and Simon's latest stage venture, in which a businessman and his buddies abuse a sex slave in Cambodia except, er, Broadway audiences won't like that, so the playwright, Donald, had better change it to a single businessman (cheaper to produce, don't you know) who goes to Cambodia, buys the girl, and raises her to be Miss America. This gives Chris plenty of opportunity to fall for the playwright, disown his "parents" (as Jack and Simon insist he call them), and set off on his own. To Germany.

I'd love to be able to say you can't guess where all this is going, but you can. For all its twisted twistiness, the script derives its sole instances of creativity from the unsettling ways in which it presents its plot points. Take, for example, this exchange from the second act, when Jack and Simon discover Chris has spent the night with Donald.

"You're a pedophile," Jack fumes. "It's disgusting."

Donald, ever the realist, retorts, "You guys had sex with him too."

That really sets Simon off: "We're his parents!"

Burning
Vladimir Versailles, Hunter Foster, Larisa Polonsky, and Stephen Tyrone Williams.
Photo by Monique Carboni.

Is that funny? Is it even supposed to be funny? Even after watching Scott Elliott's respectable but unilluminating two-hour-and-40-minute production and poring through the script, I still can't tell for sure. (My best guesses are "no" and "yes," for the record.) But such moments abound. Occasionally they're chilling in an off-center way, as when Chris, in the audition for his life, is howlingly terrible. Sometimes they bear the faint aroma of satire, as in Bart Fasbender's sound design, which utilizes Broadway show tunes (from Sunday in the Park with George, A Chorus Line, and Pippin, among others) as ironic scene change music. Much more often, they're simply creepy. When Michael fingers Katrin to orgasm while bathing her, what are you supposed to feel? And when Peter pays for the services of a black German prostitute, whom he starts calling by Franklin's mother's name, how are you supposed to react?

All this may shock, but it doesn't add up to a satisfying evening; consistency and character are invariably more compelling than scandal for scandal's sake. In fact, as it is, Burning's chief reason for being seems to be to show most of members of its cast undressed and in various copulatory positions. (Derek McLane's sleaze-parlor set and Peter Kaczorowski's dim bordello lighting are used to their utmost in this pursuit.) These moments, which reach their nadir with an all-too-visible Simon-Jack-Chris threeway, join so many others in the show in feeling cheap rather than necessary.

This isn't the fault of the actors; they do their best against bewildering odds, but none turns in a legendary performance. Evan Johnson and Hunter Foster paint vivid pictures of pain as the younger and older versions of Chris, even if it's laughable that the former could grow into the latter. Reyna de Courcy makes for an unusually sympathetic neo-Nazi as Katrin, and Drew Hildebrand brings a credible amount of confliction to Michael. Vladimir Versailles plays a guardedly innocent Franklin, though he can't sell his big speech about Franklin's crippling psychological defect (hint: a hermaphrodite was involved); Stephen Tyrone Williams is similarly compelling as Peter, though he has just as much trouble with the character's late-narrative shifts into social-sexual insanity. Larisa Polonsky (as Josephine), Andrew Garman (as Jack), Danny Mastrogiorgio (as Simon), and Adam Trese (as Donald) are solid throughout.

Burning, on the other hand, faces more than enough difficulty maintaining an even smolder throughout individual scenes. If nothing else, it has the distinction of being the least predictable play to open so far this season: It keeps you guessing, right up until its final scene, what it's about and what it contains.

Unfortunately, because so few of the pieces fit together and because so few feel like they're supposed to the ultimate impression Bradshaw imparts is not one of the roiling give and take of comedy and tragedy, but instead one of devastating and total emptiness.


Burning
Through December 17
Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes, including one intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge