‘Burning’ is a Must-See Piece of Theater
By Mark Peikert
(from left) Andrew Garman, Evan Johnson, and Danny Mastrogiorgio in 'Burning.' / Photo by Monique Carboni
If Burning, the first play of The New Group’s new season, is any indication of what theatergoers can expect from the company this year, then we’re in for one bumpy ride. Playwright Thomas Bradshaw’s Off-Broadway debut is almost hallucinatory in its looniness, ably helped along by Scott Elliott’s balls-to-the-wall directing and some genuinely bizarre performances. As Bradshaw picks up and discards every sexual taboo one can think of, the overall effect is like a John Waters movie played straight, a Douglas Sirk film on poppers. Even in context, lines like, “Stand in front of me and take out your penis” or “So, your first sexual experience was getting raped by a hermaphrodite,” don’t seem any less ridiculous.
Tackling three interconnected stories, Bradshaw’s Burning tracks 14-year-old Chris (Evan Johnson) as he abandons his life in San Francisco to be an actor in New York City, where he quickly hooks up with Broadway producer Simon (Danny Mastrogiorgio) and his lover, actor Jack (Andrew Garman). As their Marquis de Sade-fueled relationship takes root, Bradshaw flashes to the present day with parallel stories about African-American artist Peter (Stephen Tyrone Williams), who doesn’t let anyone know he is black, and an employee of the Berlin gallery that has accepted Peter’s work, neo-Nazi Michael (Drew Hildebrand), who is also burdened with his paralyzed younger sister (Reyna de Courcy, whose braids are more German than her accent).
There is much, much more, but the bare bones will have to suffice; armed with any more information, you might not buy tickets to see Burning, and it may be the first must-see show of the season.
Please don’t misinterpret that statement as a recommendation of its merits. Burning is a deeply flawed play that dabbles in shocking its audiences even while Bradshaw protects himself against audience uprising. Fourteen-year-old Chris isn’t a little boy alone in the cold, scary city among predatory homosexuals; when we first meet him, he’s an accomplished seducer who turns tricks and snorts coke, and his relationship with Jack and Simon—or “Uncle Jack” and “Dad,” as they instruct him to call them—leaves no lingering emotional damage. And a deliriously un-ironic happy ending for all forgives everyone and everything that came before, with a rush of emotion so false it would not seem out of place moments before the credits roll on a Joan Crawford weepie.