Women are perpetually attracted to men who seem wrong for them, often bad boys and brutes. This alternately wry and churning ménage à quatre (four people inextricably linked, usually by sex) is elevated by Lanford Wilson’s humor, insight, compassion, and originality. The crackerjack production zips along with high craft.
Anna (Kerri Russell) and her gay housemate Larry (Brandon Uranowitz) have just returned from third musketeer and housemate Robbie’s Texas funeral. She’s a dancer turned choreographer with Robbie’s encouragement. Larry works in advertising. The event, featuring a “baroque maroon and gold casket,” was peopled with relatives who not only never saw Robbie dance, but were unaware he was gay. Feeling it was not her place to reveal the truth, Anna found herself exhaustively playing “the girlfriend.”
Her actual significant other is Burton (David Furr), a bright, affable, apparently talented, born-rich screenwriter with whom she has clear affinity, but with whom she resists taking the next step. “I don’t know why you don’t just marry him and buy things,” Larry comments. Neither, frankly do we.
Six weeks later, in the middle of the night, Robbie’s brother, Jimmy, nicknamed Pale (Adam Driver), barges in coked up and drunk, sucking up every bit of the air in the room, swearing like a David Mamet character, powerfully, kinetically flailing. To call the entrance cyclonic is to minimize it. (No one ever seems to ask why Anna lets in a stranger.)
Time is mutable when you manage a restaurant. Pale’s just left work. Not that consideration would’ve been a factor in any case. The first of several allusions to letting it burn comes up here. (Like Ninas in a Hirschfeld, I noted two more.) He’s there to pick up Robbie’s things. Unselfconscious in a skimpy nightgown and robe (because she’s a dancer and at ease with her body?), surprised and sympathetic, Anna informs him that they’re packed up in the basement.
Pale barely takes a breath. He’s high, grieving and acting out. Between references to Robbie and the “faggot friend” with whom he was killed (he knows!), he disparages everything beginning with someone who tried to usurp a parking space and paid the price. “What DO you like?!” Anna asks incredulously. The ocean, advances, destructive fires-things that amaze you. Gravitation to the indomitable, the epic. This is why men indulge in extreme sports.
Adam Driver’s bravura performance is worthy of a Tony nomination. Lower class New Jersey accent is pitch perfect. Anger, intensity and vulnerability reminiscent of Marlon Brando make the mercurial character vivid, yet never inconceivable. Unbidden thoughts are expressed after seconds of credible, often startled recognition. Physicality is powerful and specific. Driver exudes heat.
Shoes, jacket and pants taken off and meticulously folded, Pale puts the couch blanket on his head and wails like a wounded animal. Anna comforts him. He emerges. Count a few beats: “You don’t do nothing to your hair, it’s just like that?” he comments. It’s the first of several ignominious, ingenuous observations. As an audience member, prepare to have your eyebrows in constant bemused point.
Pale, Anna observes, is “burning up.” The next morning (you can’t be surprised) while successively exiting Anna’s room and the loft in a whirlwind, he casually alludes to a wife and children.
Things return to “normal,” or do they? Larry works. Anna teaches and has a commission. Her relationship with Burton continues. Pale reappears. Anna’s boyfriend becomes aware. Passions flare, connections reexamined. Action and reaction are realistic. The heroine is caught in a gravitational field. Larry steps in.
Dialogue is a patent pleasure. Lanford Wilson’s structure keeps us attentive and expectant. Scenes between Larry and Burton are unexpectedly diverting. Anna’s confusion is relatable. Pale is a marvelous invention.
As Anna, Keri Russell looks and moves every bit the dancer, folding in on herself wherever she perches, wafting across the room. The sexually uninhibited, emotionally defended character must palpably struggle or open gradually in order to be convincing. Russell and her director opt for the former. Perhaps because she’s accustomed to cameras, this shows just a little less than it might without close-ups. The actress is nonetheless engaging; sexuality unmistakable.
Brandon Uranowitz is terrific. The actor balances cliché qualities – Larry’s sensitivity and quick, caustic humor – with moments of gravity, sometimes potently reflected in a pause or expression. The character is undeniably gay, yet never plays to it. Innuendo is utilized without becoming one-note. Warmth is undeniable.
We believe David Furr’s likeable Burton is shaken by a unique instance of not getting what wants. The character’s own empathy is deftly finessed. I’m sure there are a great many in the audience who rooted for him over Pale.
Director Michael Mayer is a master of timing. A multitude of stunned pauses, moments of consideration or struggle weave fluently through the play. Actors are immensely physical, each in his/her own way, both employing the space to best advantage and permeating the play with body awareness. Small business like Pale’s slow, inebriated extrication from his coat and handling of a teapot are inspired.
Action takes place in a large, industrial loft beautifully manifest by Scenic Designer Derek McLane (love the ceiling). Tops of the lower Manhattan skyline are artful and familiar.
Natasha Katz’ Lighting Design gradually morphs, contributing time and mood.
Costumes by Clint Ramos epitomize character and working economy. The single exception is an ensemble Anna wears on her opening night which is unflattering and impractical vis a vis weather.
David Van Tieghem’s Sound Design is loud and overwrought.
If it weren’t for J. Stephen White’s poor Fight Direction, this entire piece would be naturalistic.
Photos by Matthew Murphy
Opening: Adam Driver and Kerri Russell
Burn /This by Lanford Wilson
Directed by Michael Mayer
ATG Hudson Theatre
141 West 44th Street
Through July 14, 2019