at the Royal-George Theatre


at the Chicago Theatre

Yes, I know naturalism’s dead. Gutted, bankrupt, degraded, long since. A theatrical pretense that’s lost its credibility, and so comes across seeming fussy and quaint. Thin and false. Historicized, so to speak–as in, You mean audiences used to swallow this stuff?! I know all about it.

But, boy, Burn This is such awfully smooth naturalism. So elegant and precise, so much the work of a master playwright, hitting effect after self-assured effect in seven exquisitely shaped scenes. Lanford Wilson’s new play isn’t about to bring naturalism back to life–the script’s very perfection implies formal obsolescence, the way those marvelous dioramas at the Field Museum imply the obsolescence of whatever they depict. But it’s as fine an imitation of life as you’re likely to see.

One of the lives Burn This imitates so expertly belongs to Anna Mann, a 30-year-old dancer with a loft in lower Manhattan and a rich boyfriend who writes movies. Anna’s been sharing the loft with Larry, a gay adman; and with Robbie, her dancing partner and beloved friend, also gay. The setup was apparently idyllic, but the idyll’s over now: Robbie’s just been killed in a freak boating accident.

Along about five one morning, Robbie’s older brother shows up at the loft to claim Robbie’s personal effects. Called Pale because of a fondness for V.S.O.P. (Very Special Old Pale) cognac, the brother presents himself as a schiz in lizard-skin shoes. Extremely drunk, extremely abusive, and very well dressed, he rants on at length about the hellhole that is New York and the assholes that are New Yorkers–Anna, occasionally, included.

Anna’s exasperated. But not entirely put off. She senses something of her lost Robbie in the beast. By the time Pale’s rage gives way to sobs, she’s been won over. And the trouble can start.

Wilson handles his love story with humor, sympathy, and consummate grace. There’s an almost teasing subtlety to the way he structures a scene, laying light hints in our way, playing with our expectations, leading us out toward one set of emotional assumptions only to stop short and break for another–never cynically, but in faithful obedience to the spirit of human contrariness. The long first scene, especially, runs very very far away from its affective center–Anna’s grief over Robbie’s death–before the playwright, and Anna herself, find themselves crashing back into it.

Wilson’s playfulness gets almost prankish at times. He pulls an honest-to-God practical joke late in the play, using some expensive champagne glasses and our own sense of dramatic symmetry for bait. He taunts us with suspicious handguns and conspiracy theories. He shakes off the heavy presence of AIDS with a single oblique, wistful, funny remark.

No, AIDS isn’t allowed to intrude here, any more than Reagan or Iran or the farm crisis. Urban complaints like crime, overcrowding, and filth come up explicitly only when Pale’s raving. And then they’re not the point. Burn This is self-contained: though the people in it are surrounded by a recognizable world, with politics and diseases, bigotry, money, and garbage barges, their attentions are focused almost entirely on the life within their small circle. This isn’t unusual, of course. What’s unusual is the extent to which my own attention remains focused on that circle now, days after seeing the show at the Royal-George. I often bring ideas home from the theater with me–combinations of images, dramatic approaches that I return to, replay, rediscover, or rearrange in my head. But it’s rare that I get characters stuck there. I’ve been going back over Pale in particular, tracing his emotional logic, parsing it out, and being fascinated. The guy doesn’t resonate very far; he doesn’t refer to anything much beyond the circumstances in which we find him. But he’s just so damned interesting. So thoroughly strategized. So perfectly crafted. So wonderful to contemplate.

The craftsmanship doesn’t stop with Wilson. Marshall W. Mason’s been directing the playwright’s scripts for better than 20 years, and knows exactly how to deal with them in all their strength and weakness. It’s a sort of Louis Sullivan/Dankmar Adler relationship: Wilson comes up with architectural ideas–like the exceptionally long arc of that first scene–and Mason engineers them so they’ll work onstage. His pacing’s impeccable.

John Malkovich is another craftsman. A vivid Pale, he runs smoothly from tanked-up foulmouthed creep to sensitive male. But he never manages to encompass the character’s full drama. Burn This is, to a large extent, about Pale’s attempt to regain his equilibrium, lost over the course of years spent trying to hold together a life full of debilitating contradictions. Though he’s great at physicalizing Pale’s crazy, scattershot energy–his quality of screaming along just this side of exhaustion–Malkovich doesn’t convey a sense of the tensions that feed that energy. That feed it like wood feeds a fire. We see Pale’s contending selves serially, but never together.

Part of the problem, believe it or not, is wardrobe. Pale’s got a fetish for high-fashion, expensive clothes. It’s an expressive outlet for him. An outward sign of his hidden self. A kind of artistic statement. But Laura Crow’s costumes for Pale don’t make that statement powerfully enough. And as a result, the character loses a crucial bit of nuance.

Crow succeeds much better with Anna, by applying a little-known but almost immutable law of fashion–which is that dancers dress badly. Crow sees to it that Anna’s clothes are at their ugliest when she’s trying her hardest to be chic.

Joan Allen, meanwhile, makes all the right terpsichorean moves as Anna, keeping her back straight and massaging her feet a lot. But she fails to bring out the physicality and everyday pain, the often harsh athleticism, that characterize dancers. More important, she fails to bring out the physicality and pain that characterize Anna’s relationship with Pale. Sympathetic but vague, Allen never makes Anna’s desires real, her urges compelling.

The inadequacies in Malkovich’s and Allen’s performances certainly leave a hole in Burn This–not to mention a disappointing coolness where the hot spots ought to be. But they don’t by any means ruin the show. Malkovich and Allen are too good for that. If they’re not perfectly sharp, they’re at least never dull. Malkovich, especially, is plain fun to watch with his Lauren Bacall coif (by Jeffrey Sacino) and his savage poise.

And then, too, they’ve got all that sly, solid support: From Lou Liberatore, who rejects easy effeminate choices for Larry the gay roommate, while simultaneously milking the fey venom out of every line. And from Jonathan Hogan, who’s endearingly insipid as Burt the rich boyfriend.

John Lee Beatty’s created a set that would make a rental-starved Manhattanite cry, and Dennis Parichy’s lighting is cleverly integrated into Beatty’s design. Production values overall are as smooth and consummately professional as Wilson’s script. Of course there’s something missing at the bottom of it all, just as there’s something missing from those dioramas at the Field Museum. But that something can’t be restored without turning Burn This into a completely different sort of animal. And I’d hate to see such rare craftsmanship made extinct.

Speaking of extinct, I just saw a touring production of Song and Dance. People say the musical’s dead, but I never believed them till I encountered this one, all skinned and gutted and trussed up, onstage at the Chicago Theatre.

Written by Andrew Lloyd Webber in a style that alternates between chirpiness and a sort of Pink Floyd gothic, Song and Dance works from the assumption that audiences are no longer bright or patient enough to sit through the traditional sort of musical, where there’s an extended narrative and several different textures might be present at the same time. Song and Dance assumes we only want the high points.

So that’s what it gives us. Act one consists of Melissa Manchester all by herself, singing a series of 20 songs limning the adventures of a British girl in America. In act two, Manchester’s replaced by a corps of nine dancers pursuing a distantly related idea. There’s no fraternizing between the elements until the end, when Manchester shows up to offer a perfunctory resolution to whatever’s been happening.

All in all it’s sort of like one of those pornographic tape loops where they don’t bother with the niceties–they just give you what you came to see.

Still, if what you came to see was singing and dancing, I guess it’ll do. Manchester’s a wonderful singer, though she’s saddled here with an obtrusive and unnecessary British accent. And the dancers are sexy and athletic, performing choreography by the New York City Ballet’s Peter Martins. A marvelous tap dancer, Eugene Fleming, even manages to inject a little personality into the show–though that seems to be frowned on in general.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.