Make It Personal, Tell the Truth: “Burn This”

Photo by Tim Gurczak.

Presented by Hub Theatre Company of Boston 
By Lanford Wilson
Directed by Daniel Bourque
Intimacy direction by Lauren Cook
Fight choreography by Matt Dray

Saturday, April 6 -Sunday, April 21, 2024
Boston Center for the Arts
539 Tremont Street
Boston, MA 

All performances are Pay-What-You-Can

Two hours with one intermission

Critique by Kitty Drexel

BOSTON, Mass. — Hub Theatre Company of Boston’s production of Lanford Wilson’s Burn This runs at the BCA through April 21. Get your tickets to support local fringe theatre HERE

Anna (Kiki Samko), an impotent choreographer and retired dancer, is grappling with the artistic and personal void left by the untimely death of her roommate and creative partner Robbie. Her best friend and housemate Larry (Steve Auger) acts as nurse, bodyguard, and gatekeeper. Anna’s on-again, off-again boyfriend Burton (Tim Hoover) wants to be her everything. Anna won’t decide what she wants to be or who she wants to do. 

Enter Pale (Victor L Shopov), Robbie’s incendiary older brother. She lights a flame in her heart, under her feet, and in her pants. With Robbie gone, Anna will either discover a new muse or burn the apartment down trying. 

Burn This is a period piece from 1987. The original production – the one Lanford Wilson championed – was performed off-Broadway by commission from the Circle Repertory Company. It starred Jonathan Hogan, Joan Allen, John Malkovich, and Lou Liberatore. Marshall W. Mason directed.

The Signature Theatre did a revival in 2002 with Edward Norton and Catherine Keener. It was also performed in the West End and Australia.

Wilson’s baby played on Broadway in April 2019. Adam Driver, fresh off of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker popularity, brought the production to the Hudson Theater with Keri Russell in the role of Anna as part of Arts in the Armed Forces with wife Joanne Tucker. It did okay.  

In all that time, after all those productions, one wonders how the original script was transformed and if playwright Lanford Wilson had any regrets. It’s a doozy of a play with many sharp edges and minimal charm. Misunderstand an important but coded line of dialogue and Wilson leaves you in the dust. 

Given the year of the play’s birth, its toxicity could’ve been Wilson’s point. He considered it his best work.

To find its place within the cultural zeitgeist, one should understand that shock humor was hitting the mainstream between the late ’80s and early ‘90s. Howard Stern exposed himself to the airwaves in 1990. Ren & Stimpy hit Nickelodeon in 1991. Pop entertainment was intentionally offending us. The theatre was the same.

I read Burn This in 2019, because I am a geek and a nerd. I didn’t get it then. Watching the live production leaves me with more questions than answers. Why are Wilson’s characters so unlikeable? Why do people keep producing this rambling, rageful play by a gay man about toxic, unlikeable heteros getting laid? Is it all a coke-fueled nightmare? I was at a loss. 

Given how underwhelming the script is, Hub Theatre Co’s production is surprisingly endearing. The cast works hard to make their selfish, unhappy characters sympathetic. Wilson wrote his anti-heroes into proverbial corners; Samko, Hoover, Auger, and Shopov endeavor to pry them out. 

Auger and Hoover are the most likable humans in the show. Auger as Larry might be a sad sack with no prospects, romantic or career, but Auger wins us over by playing Larry with fanciful sincerity. Hoover as Burton is oblivious to Anna’s romantic indecision, but he’s also sincerely supportive of Anna. Their love for Anna is touching. It’s too bad Anna doesn’t like herself enough to be rescued by them.

Anna is spineless. Pale is only spine. Burdened by the weight of Robbie’s unfulfilled potential, they suffer alone but in the same room. Yet, Samko and Shopov invite you to believe these two broken humans might do better if only they got therapy. They don’t. 

Samko and Shopov worked with intimacy director Lauren Cook to make their characters’ morally questionable seduction scene mostly work. Samko and Shopov are making the right motions, feeling the right feelings, but their characters’ energies never quite meet. Our actors have chemistry, but their characters don’t.

It’s not Hub’s fault. Wilson wrote an unbalanced scene and never fixed it: Anna and Pale meet. They argue unsexily and then, all of a sudden, they gracelessly seduce each other with unsexy quips. They exit to the bedroom. Cue intermission. 

Act Two is mercifully less awkward. Wilson corrects all the blunders from Act One. Samko and Shopov get to show us the full range of their talents. If the audience can wait until Act Two, (it shouldn’t have to but that’s Wilson’s problem and he’s dead) they’ll see why Hub produced this play, and why it cast its actors in their roles. 

Matt Dray’s fight choreography is safe, sane, and logical. Pale has it coming. I’m glad Burton gets some shots in. 

Justin Lahue’s set design utilizes the BCA black box well. His black and white stairs might actually lead to nowhere, but we believe a loft bedroom is above the BCA ceiling. The mac ‘n cheese boxes and Reece’s Puffs by props designer Julia Wonkka were a nice touch. 

Burn This is about two people writhing so incandescently with pain that they choose reckless irresponsibility over grieving any moment longer. Because sometimes, when your choices are feeling acute, irrepressible grief and fucking the drug possessing your best friend’s brother after he lets himself into your Brooklyn apartment, you hump the road less traveled. Let the grown adult who hasn’t done something stupid in the name of heartbreak cast the first stone.

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