nytheatre.com review by Stephen Cedars
November 10, 2011
Burning, the off-Broadway debut of Guggenheim Award winner Thomas Bradshaw, is a refreshingly mammoth piece of work. Unavoidably if not intentionally echoing Kushner's expansive plays, Burning tells several stories that progressively overlap in both theme and plot. One of these is set in the mid-'80s, and follows a disturbed, orphaned 14-year old, Chris, as he relocates to NYC and is taken in by a gay couple immersed in the theatre world that Chris desperately wants to join. The other two stories are set in the present day: one follows a black painter, Peter, who hides his race in order to secure a prestigious art opening in Berlin; and the other follows a pair of Neo-Nazi siblings in Berlin who hope to carry on Hitler's good work.
But this summary is only meant to identify the protagonists; the world of each story is large, and boasts several threads that are often as fascinating as the primary action. The cast of thirteen (with only one actor cast in more than one role!) is well-used throughout the play to create a panorama rather than a supporting troupe. To put it simply, it's a big play, in terms of characterization, ambition, philosophies and conflicts.
Which isn't to say that the play necessarily works. It's compelling storytelling, especially in the first half, with a proficient mixture of cinematic structure—short scenes that often last only as long as their story purposes—and theatrical conception. But what is most likely to distinguish the play is not its narrative but rather Bradshaw's ballsy extremism. A surplus of nudity, enough prolonged sex scenes to count on two hands, a heavy dose of incest and molestation, all enacted by characters whose loneliness is matched by selfishness. It confronts a myriad of themes— homosexuality, race, the pettiness of the art and theatre worlds—with an approach more grounded in transgression than subtle exploration.
And yet despite the wonderful provocation, the play never quite manages to feel truly transgressive, mainly because the characterization is uniformly broad. This is especially true of the actors whose work I found most impressive and enjoyable (Andrew Garman as the petty but successful actor Jack, and Vladimir Versailles as the distraught, confused Franklin are two examples), but the broadness is consistent less in performance than through the writing. Characters who rarely transcend their eccentricities make for a raucous show at times—and where else but the big city will a packed house laugh together at the awkwardness of a grown man bedding an over-experienced 14-year old?—but they also limit the effect of the emotional heft the play attempts to engender in its second half. That is, the set-ups are so broadly comical that the pay-offs, though well-written, can't really land with enough force to suggest the profundity that one feels the play wants to reach.
I hesitate to criticize the play as being too unwieldy, for not coming together—it doesn't really, but I'd argue that a spiraling lack of cohesion can also make for the most fascinating work, from Strindberg to Genet. Like the work of those two writers, Burning is connected primarily by its writer's perspective, which to me reads as a world comprised of self-obsessed lonely people pushing themselves into extreme territory (usually sexual) to forge connections that they only intuitively recognize that they are burning to make. It's a poignant conception, but one I can only recognize in interpretation since I didn't experience any of such poignancy through the work—it is a fascinating work that never quite fascinated me. But as this play might counter, experience is nothing but subjective, and so perhaps you ought take my ambivalence as great impetus to explore for yourself the original voice of an American dramatist who, it seems, has a ton of thoughts he'd like to share and shock you with.