It is not every day that Juilliard drama students are given the opportunity to inhabit characters who ask themselves the very questions the actors have been tackling throughout their four years of training. Who am I? What does it mean to be an artist? What will it cost me? How can I integrate the losses and loves of my personal life into my work, and how do I keep working in spite of them?
Lanford Wilson’s Burn This, a play commissioned by Circle Repertory in 1987 and directed there that same year by Marshall Mason, offers this unique experience to the fourth-year cast currently rehearsing the show, which is slated to be the second mainstage production of Group 38’s final season. Each of its four characters poses some or all of these same queries in light of the tremendous individual losses they find themselves facing throughout the course of the play. Consequently, each member of its ensemble is given a rich opportunity (as they have been encouraged to do in every project they approach) to make the piece as personal as possible.
The play begins in the autumn of 1987, in the wake of Robbie and his partner Dominic’s accidental death in a boating accident. Robbie was the roommate and dear friend of both Larry—gay and unhappily working in advertising—and Anna, a budding choreographer and Robbie’s former dancing collaborator. The spacious TriBeCa loft the three shared feels even emptier than usual without Robbie’s vital presence to help enliven it. Once Burton—Anna’s wealthy screenwriting boyfriend of convenience—shows up, the chaotic nature of the funeral that has just taken place is revealed by Anna and Larry, as well as Robbie’s estrangement from a family who knew practically nothing about him.
As the characters continue to navigate their grief and their artistic or life purposes—at times in concert with each other, at other times victims of their utter alienation from one another—Robbie’s older brother, Pale, a volatile and hyperactive New Jersey restaurateur, drops in unexpectedly a month after the tragedy has taken place. Confronted for the first time in his life by the space in which Robbie lived and worked, he too is overwhelmed by the grief and guilt he is only now allowing himself to feel. Eventually initiating an affair with Anna, Pale sets into motion a love-triangle involving himself, Burton, and Anna that will haunt the rest of the play in conjunction with Robbie’s spirit and will ultimately provide Burton’s first real experience with defeat.
Burn This, like life and a lot of art, refuses to offer any concrete conclusions and its ending is unafraid to remain ambiguous, as its cast of outsiders continue to struggle with the fluidity of their identities and what it is they really want. But the circumstances of their lives have changed, causing them each to experience a transformation of some kind, as a result of finally allowing themselves to be affected by each other—suggesting that perhaps they are at least capable of moving out of isolation and closer to a sense of community. In the end, the play, according to Pam MacKinnon, the director of Juilliard’s production, is “timeless … big and epic … containing big waves of grief, big waves of love, and this pressure-cooker of the idea that you’re only given one life, so what are you going to do with it?” The result of all this seemingly self-involved questioning is a larger examination relevant to the collective consciousness, familiar to actor and audience alike.
It is also not every day that a production’s team is lucky enough to work on a piece by a living writer, who saw two of his other plays, Book of Days and The Mound-Builders, performed at Juilliard by the third-year class last month. Mr. Wilson was present at many of those rehearsals, and offered up his time to chat with the Drama Division during one of its weekly community meetings at which he described Burn This as a play about “people on the edge.” He plans to join the cast in rehearsals of Burn This as well. Such immediate access to the playwright has been possible thanks to the ongoing working relationship he shares with James Houghton, director of Juilliard’s Drama Division and artistic director of the Signature Theater, which has made it a mission to dedicate each of its seasons to a living writer’s body of work. Wilson was the writer-in-residence there in 2002, when the first major revival of Burn This, directed by Houghton, was staged at the Union Square Theater.
Because it is a play about loss, the pain its wounds can yield, and the love that can help heal them, the original 1987 production of Burn This was inevitably colored by the AIDS crisis; young gay men like Robbie were inexplicably dying left and right without justification. The characters’ misplaced anger in Burn This resonated deeply in a community that did not know where to put its own feelings and frustration about a disease that was taking so many of its most beloved members hostage. Likewise, the 2002 revival of the play surfaced right on the heels of 9/11, when an entire country—and most predominantly, New York City—had been traumatized by the events of that fateful day. Again, the cause of such tragedy was what was so incomprehensible.
So, although Burn This so poignantly addresses the intimate and personal implications of how painful it is to lose good friends and longtime loves, will there be anything that resonates with socio-political implications in Juilliard’s production? That is something MacKinnon says she has “not come to any concrete conclusions about, but is interested in keeping alive in the room as an ongoing question of the rehearsal process. Why does an audience need to see this play now? What will our collective mission be?” Living in a world in which assumption, judgment, intolerance, and exclusivity are steadily becoming more and more the norm, putting us in danger of misunderstanding and violence, perhaps simply asking the questions that lead to dialogue, instead of dismissal, is reason enough.