Driver Commands Stage In ‘Burn This’

Matthew Murphy

A physically power-packed performance by Adam Driver in director Michael Mayer’s revival of “Burn This” goes beyond scenery chewing. It’s in your face, unavoidable, and altogether alien.

Driver, after all, is a man of large proportions. Tall, with an enviable six-pack, his arms and legs are large and thick. It’s not about his bulging muscles, but his physique. And that is precisely what he brings to the character of Pale, a man who is angry, loud, harsh, and fueled by passion.

John Malkovich’s interpretation, in the play’s 1987 premiere, was by comparison, dainty. He looked almost pretty with his long locks. And in some of the opening scenes, talking with his back to the audience, he drew us into his corner. Crazy as he was, he was sly, understated, and highly interactive. His intelligence and wit, along with his skill in mining Lanford Wilson’s poetic language, belonged with the bohemians in the downtown Manhattan loft where he arrives.

But when Driver barges in, we immediately smell the rough-edged, blue-collar guy inside the Armani suit and lizard shoes. He barges in, and it’s not really clear why. It’s true that Rob, his deceased brother had lived there, but the two of them had not had a relationship in years.

Clearly, he is on a quest, and for some reason, his target is Anna (Keri Russell), a dancer who was uniquely inspired by her best friend Rob, a man she laments as if they had been lovers. Pale runs into Larry, the charming, comedic Brandon Urbanowitz, and her suave screenwriter boyfriend, David Furr, who makes a dull character appear as needy and lost as they come.

Russell’s star quality is compelling. She’s sexy, and she skillfully finesses the unsteadiness of her character.

That Driver wins us over so completely is not a predictable outcome. His crude behavior matched by his physical dominance are off-putting at first. But the vulnerability that he reveals through his romantic attachment to Anna makes him an incredibly touching and sympathetic character. His transformation is huge, and it’s believable.

Regardless of the play’s ambivalent critical reception when it premiered, it remains one of many gems in Wilson’s oeuvre. As a playwright, he wrote about the America he loved, the country that forged democracy. For that reason, his stories were often told by the disenfranchised, and those who lived on the fringes of our society. The urban poor facing eviction in “Hot L Baltimore,” like the gay paraplegic Vietnam veteran in “Fifth of July,” are among the characters who created the texture and excitement of his drama.

More significant than the different qualities of the two actors who have portrayed the blue-collar hulk, Pale, on Broadway, is the societal shift that their acting reveals. Youthful ennui isn’t what it was in the ‘80s, nor are millennials of the same substance as yuppies. Indeed, the tempestuousness, and melancholy at the loss of innocence, and the threat of an ugly world that awaits, is no subtle affair these days.

We observe this in the TV series, “Girls,” in which Adam Driver played one of the main characters. As written by Lena Denham, ennui and dissatisfaction are exposed in bold outspoken ways, and often in uncaring acts of sexuality.

That Mayer carries Wilson’s universal tale into the light of contemporary life speaks to the universality of the play. Designer Derek McLane sets the action in a spacious loft with soaring views of the Manhattan skyline, well beyond the garbage-laden barges that Pale describes looking out the window. His view — a world of garbage, and our view — a spectacular New York City skyline, aren’t necessarily meant to mesh.

And Clint Ramos’s spot-on 1980s costumes leave little room for ambiguity. If you’re wealthy like Burton, or a showman like Pale, you are what you wear.

It’s the second act of this revival that packs a wham-bam punch. Driver, in Brando-esque mode, fumbling at love, and too weak to take charge of it, is so vulnerable and the experience so intimate, we fall for him.

Hillary And Clinton

Playwright Lucas Hnath’s new play, “Hillary And Clinton,” starring Laurie Metcalf, examines the role of gender in society. Here, Metcalf portrays Hillary at the New Hampshire primary in 2008. As we know, she’s running against Obama, in her bid to become the Democratic nominee for President of the United States. No surprises here. She’s losing.

The universe of the play is a sterile white cube that serves as Hillary’s hotel suite. It’s she who introduces the 90-minute drama, and narrates the play’s premise standing at a microphone. There is a sense in which action and dialogue are objectified.

Addressing her failing campaign, she engages her campaign manager, Mark (Zak Orth) and her husband, Bill (John Lithgow) with the issue of her public persona. “Cold, stubborn, guarded,” Hillary quips from popular commentary. “It’s like I’m trying to play like I’m perfect.”

Hearing it now reminds us, for instance, that women, even Presidential candidates, are not looked at it in the same way men are in politics. The concern about public presence, effect, and style are not discussed in those kind of personal terms when we talk about men. More importantly, the perception of Hillary as defensive and guarded seems particularly ironic since her personal life, right down to her bedroom, had been openly displayed long before she ran for the Presidency. There is no reasonable cause to challenge her when it’s already out there.

That her bedroom (designer, Chloe Lamford) now looks white washed is the public’s choice. A great deal had been openly, publicly known about Bill’s dalliances, and Hillary’s feelings vis a vis her husband’s infidelity.

It’s the degradation that comes into focus here. “I’m the woman who used her husband to get into politics. That’s why I let my husband screw around,” she notes about the public mockery that surrounds her. But Hillary, in the context of Hnath’s play, is no more the source of the criticisms hurled at her than the victims of the Salem witch trials in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” were guilty of the crimes of which they had been accused. To be clear, Miller used that metaphor to speak out against the McCarthy hearings of his time.

And Metcalf prevails with gravitas in portraying this commanding, accomplished woman simply, with no extraordinary measures. Despairing that she’ll lose the primary, she calls her husband and asks him to come to New Hampshire to be with her. Grabbing a mini vodka from the fridge, she pours its contents into a bottle of Snapple, and swigs down the rest.

Metcalf, on the stage throughout the entire production, never loses her cool, raises her voice, or fails to keep us wrapped in her easy, natural presence. Her slippers and fleece (designer, Rita Ryack) have a real New Hampshire style. And her demeanor is easy; she gets roughed up without crowing about it. As Hillary, Metcalf takes charge because that is who she is. For all the criticism of her public persona, it’s ironic that she appears so understated and at ease with herself here.

Helmed by Joe Mantello, the production moves smoothly and naturally in spite of the fact that it’s all talk, no action. There really isn’t any to take.

As Bill, Lithgow arrives in shorts and a sweatshirt. Peter Francis James’s Obama is a fiercely confident presence, who possesses the leverage to destroy Hillary. Both men explore the shadows — the actual political dirt — which caused Hillary to fail.

She realizes, “It’s like I’m trying to stare at the back of my own head, trying to see something that I just can’t see, but if I could catch a glimpse of it, then I would know what to do.” That is the experience of being women, we who often have no one else to stand on, other than ourselves.

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