(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.
Elliott amps up the sexuality throughout, staging what are among the most realistic scenes of down-and-dirty sex ever seen outside of an Adam Rapp play. There are blowjobs, multiple scenes of anal sex (often accompanied by clinical dirty talk) and one shockingly realistic rim job that is not in the script provided to critics. It’s indicative of the innate falseness of Bradshaw’s play and Elliott’s handling of it that these scenes, as graphic and closely choreographed as they are, are ultimately utterly unbelievable. A few flicks of the tongue and Chris is ready to receive an erect dick sans K-Y. Only enterprising Berlin hooker Gretchen (Barrett Doss) understands the importance of lubrication.
Let me now state that to harp on any actor’s performance—the giant cast also includes Hunter Foster, Jeff Biehl, Andrew Polk, Larisa Polonsky, Adam Trese and Vladimir Versailles—would be cruel, considering the material and their often physically naked roles. Some performers are better than others, but they all get a free pass in this one.
The bigger question hanging over Burning—even bigger than how an artist in the era of Facebook would be able to prevent any pictures of himself from being taken to keep the color of his skin a secret—is whether Bradshaw and Elliott intend the show to be as funny as audiences find it. The overheated production borders on camp; there are moments of such sweaty, near-satiric sexuality—mostly between the paternally smiling Jack and Simon and the eager Chris—that the scenes feel like discards from a Tennessee Williams draft that he deemed too prurient.
Sex scenes aside, the musical cues throughout the show—from Barbra Streisand singing “Corner of the Sky” and “Putting It Together” to a repeated use of “Your Song” that results in maybe the funniest AIDS-related death scene ever on stage—seem to serve as punchlines.
Burning rings false every step of the way, but its ridiculousness is oddly contagious—even if “Your Song” will forever after conjure images of Kaposi’s sarcoma and the Marquis de Sade.