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Flickers of subversion don’t quite ignite dazzling play

Lanford Wilson’s volatile romantic quartet Burn This will surely jolt audiences starved of live performance, even as it remains a deeply uncomfortable play to watch.

It has been regularly performed in the US, attracting such leading actors as John Malkovich, Edward Norton, Catherine Keener and Adam Driver. This revival from 16th Street Actors Studio delivers impressive performances in demanding roles.

Among other things, the sexual politics are so jarring to contemporary sensibility that it feels like a period piece.

In 1980s Manhattan, dancer Anna and her gay flatmate, Larry, mourn their other flatmate (and Anna’s dance partner), Robbie, who died in a boating accident. Robbie was gay, too, and Anna is furious at having to pretend to be his girlfriend at the funeral, while her long-time boyfriend Burton – a rich screenwriter – is perhaps too relaxed and comfortable to provide comfort.

Anna’s life is disrupted one night by the tornadic entrance of Robbie’s older brother, Pale, a married restaurant manager on a drug- and grief-fuelled spree whose arias of violent anguish terrify and seduce Anna into a dalliance against her better judgment.

You desperately want the flickers of subversion in the play to ignite and burn down the whole cliched house down. You want Anna to resist both the security of marriage to Burton and Pale’s frightening, erotically charged coercion to assert herself and succeed as an artist on her own terms. But that prospect is only half-realised. Ultimately, the play collapses into a heterosexual love triangle, Anna torn between safe option and bad boy, with Larry as a gay fourth wheel/agony aunt/Cupid figure. It’s very disconcerting, and not quite psychologically credible in longshot, though the performances carry you along in the moment, drawing you into a vortex of emotion. You can’t help but admire and recoil at the intensity of Mark Diaco, who channels shades of Brando in Streetcar into the role of Pale. Jessica Clarke’s Anna meets him halfway in the storm of her own torment and covers much greater emotional terrain; Jacob Collins Levy’s Burton achieves a crisp balance, embodying the tension between art and privilege and how they might open or close a person to the world. Dushan Philips’ Larry gives a great comic performance: affable, rippling with defensive humour and underscored by melancholy. Against the destructive passions and social expectations of the horrible heteros, he turns the play into more of an advertisement for homosexuality than it is intended to be.

Sharply directed by Iain Sinclair, with talented performances, Burn This is still a troubling experience.


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