In 1986, when cast members received the script of Lanford Wilson’s latest untitled play, they were puzzled to see the words “burn this” written on the occasional page. The playwright explained that it was a leftover reminder to himself to be raw, risky and incendiary.
A year later, the play — titled “Burn This” and starring John Malkovich and Joan Allen as unlikely lovers nursing emotional wounds in a lower Manhattan loft — served notice in the course of its year-long Broadway run that Wilson had indeed returned to the volcanic energy that had fueled his rise from off-off-Broadway with such plays as “Balm in Gilead” and “Hot l Baltimore.”
“Lanford wanted to break through the shell he had created for himself by that time, the gentle, sweet realism of [“Talley’s Folly” and “Fifth of July”], and get back to the revolutionary fire of his earlier work,” recalled Marshall Mason, the artistic director of Circle Rep, the legendary company that had nurtured Wilson’s work since 1969 and which would produce “Burn This.”
Since then, Wilson’s legacy has cooled. When he died in 2011, at the age of 73, the obituaries were not as respectful as they might have been for an artist described by critics as the heir to Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Once one of the most produced playwrights in America, Wilson’s work has fallen out of fashion. Thus, the stakes are high for the new revival, starring Adam Driver and Keri Russell and directed by Michael Mayer, which opens on April 16 at the Hudson Theatre.
“There are people who absolutely adore his work but I think he’s not better known because he’s underrated by some people,” said Tanya Berezin, who is the literary executor of Wilson’s estate and who was one of co-founders of the Circle Rep along with Mason, Wilson and Rob Thirkield. “It’s a question of getting the work out there so that this new generation can see, understand and value it.”
The time might be ripe for a resurrection. Wilson’s particular “lyric realism” — everyday speech sent aloft on flights of operatic poetry — sits well in “Burn This,” a story of urban professionals coping with the sudden loss of Robby, a young modern dancer. His death in a tragic boating accident leaves bereft his roommates, Larry, a gay ad executive (Brandon Uranowitz) and Anna, a modern dancer-turned-choreographer (Keri Russell), whose lover is Burton, a rich, successful screenwriter (David Furr).
Blowing into their lives is Pale (Adam Driver), Robby’s brother, wracked with guilt, high on coke and alcohol, and roaring with disgust for the world at large. Since his arrival in 1987, Wilson’s explosive anti-hero has attracted actors, including Malkovich, Edward Norton and, now, Driver, who let it be known that this was a role he wanted to assay.
“So many of the characteristics of Pale are in Adam’s wheelhouse,” said Mayer. “He’s bigger than life and there’s a dangerous, smoldering quality to him. He has an intense emotional depth and Adam has a great capacity for using language in an extravagant way.”
Mayer said it was that poetic extravagance which attracted him to Wilson. “There were very few playwrights writing in that naturalistic manner and it was bold and refreshing.”
What the critic Harold Clurman called Wilson’s “mutilated lyricism” — endowing marginal and disenfranchised souls with a voice — was incubated in the 1960s in such legendary off-off-Broadway theaters as Café Cino and LaMaMa Etc. The drama that first got him noticed was 1964’s “The Madness of Lady Bright,” an early gay play about an aging drag queen descending into madness in a hot room in New York City.
“It was mindboggling what he had done in terms of breaking ground in the theater and creating a tremendous new force that was thrilling,” said Mason, who directed almost all of Wilson’s plays and who recounts that era in his memoir, “The Transcendent Years.”
In the ensuing decades, Wilson’s rise paralleled the rise of the Circle as one of the country’s pre-eminent repertory companies. No less than 11 of its productions and/or commissions transferred to Broadway during its 27-year history from 1969 to 1996, many of them by Wilson, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Talley’s Folly” and “Burn This.”
Those plays are the two poles of Wilson’s writing: exploring his Missouri roots in the “Talley” trilogy, which is about a family grappling with their place in life and society, bookended by yuppies dealing with many of the same issues.
“The combination of Lanford’s growing up in the Midwest and then spending most of his adult life in our urban world made him really understand our strengths and weaknesses as a country,” said Berezin.
Sign up for our newsletter
The antecedents of a character like Pale swarm through Wilson’s earlier plays, such as the tempestuous Jackie in “Hot l Baltimore,” and the exclamatory Gwen in “Fifth of July.” These are all characters, added Berezin, “who have big dreams and are never satisfied. They want the world to be bigger and better than it is and they are impatient with the stupidities of society.”
Binding all of Wilson’s work is what Mason calls the “chosen family.” The playwright’s compassion for the walking wounded coheres in the sense that no matter how despairing, whether habitués of a flophouse or struggling artists in a Manhattan loft, his characters are all on a search for family.
“Lanford’s adoration of the life force found its best expression in family, the natural family of true affection,” said Mason. “What underlies his work is bringing lonely damaged souls together.”
In “Burn This,” the arrival of Pale reorders how that family will be defined. At its center is Anna, who faces the classic dilemma of choosing between a stable but unexciting lover in Burton, and the passionate desire of Pale. Complicating the matter is her grief.
“Anna is the heart of the play,” said Mayer, “and Keri Russell brings the sensibility and grounded grace of a dancer to it.”
In her struggle, Anna has few defenses against the onslaught of Pale and the temptation of a couple to immolate themselves in love. Wilson doesn’t shy away from the dangers of such a pact. But Berezin suggested that it traces an evolution in the playwright when it comes to matters of the heart.
She noted that in his 1976 drama, “Serenading Louie,” one of the two marriages he sketches in the play leads to homicidal madness.
“If you look at ‘Serenading Louie’ and then ‘Burn This,’” said Berezin, “Lanford thinks that love is worth risking everything.”
Mason isn’t so sure that’s the takeaway. “We don’t know what’s going to happen to these two people,” said the director. “It’s frightening and very existential. It’s far from a conventional romance.”
Mayer, for his part, finds Wilson’s work so intense and unsettling that the notion of tackling another play is appealing yet daunting.
“It would be dreamy if this production would lead to a revival of his other plays,” he said. “It’s been a while since we’ve seen ‘Balm in Gilead.’ Lanford’s a little scary. The verbal acuity, the pyrotechnics, really getting inside someone’s messy brain. ‘Burn This’ has been fun. But it’s not been easy.”
Top Image: Adam Driver and Keri Russell in Lanford Wilson's "Burn This." Photo by Danielle Levitt.