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Theater Review: A Burning Sensation I Can’t Shake

Hunter Foster and Vladimir Versailles in ‘Burning.’ Photo: Monique Carboni

Burning is my first frot with the ooky oeuvre of Thomas Bradshaw, the pseudo-notorious off-off-Broadway provocateur/analist, and I was not disappointed. Here are some of the things that happen in his latest play: A troubled orphan teen from Frisco (Evan Johnson) is adopted by a gay theater power couple (Andrew Garman and Danny Mastrogiorgio) in AIDS-ravaged eighties New York; they promptly make him their happy houseboy/sex slave. Later, he grows up to be played by a somewhat bewildered-looking Hunter Foster. In the present day, a self-loathing black painter (Stephen Tyrone Williams) with a mild-mannered white wife (Larisa Polonsky) finds a new market for his work in Germany, where aesthetes and neo-Nazis alike revel in the ghetto degradation he portrays. He also finds a new black mistress (Barrett Doss), an African prostitute who, unlike Tighty McWhitey back home, welcomes the rare pleasures of anal sex. (This motif, announced cheekily in Burning’s poster art, runs through all of Bradshaw’s work.) But wait! There’s more! A sexually repressed, creatively frustrated German skinhead (Drew Hildebrand) with a Colonel Klink accent and a crippled teen sister (Reyna de Courcy) — who requires regular bathtime hand jobs from her brother, of course — discusses the importance of dietary fiber with a constipated co-Aryan (Jeff Biehl), in what turns out to be an extended fart joke. And so on.

Believe it or not, these plot threads converge, Crash-like, but most of the happenings simply erupt, wartlike, on the skin of the play; no serious attempt has been made to interpolate or mediate the events of the story, intellectually or aesthetically, beneath the surface. In fact, there’s not much of anything beneath Burning’s sheer latex surface other than the very salient outline of the author’s turgid, uh, pen. Such tedious textual labors would only slow us down on our way to the next act of grunting, protracted, fully nude simulated penetration: There’d been at least seven when I stopped counting. Nearly everyone gets nude and absolutely everyone gets screwed in Burning. Will you, semi-willing audience member, be among the buggered? That depends entirely on how much resistance you decide to put up.

Egregiousness, you see, is the signature of Bradshaw’s straight-faced bump-and-grind absurdism. Race and class are his enduring interests, but at heart, he’s a boulevard satirist firing a broad scatter pattern of suburb-shaking salvos (sexual predation is natural and ineluctable, domination is instinctive) and a basic charter to fuck shit up, Larry Clark–style. Because shit, as you know, is fucked up. (Did you not know? You will be taught!) In Bradshawland, admissions of minor peccadilloes (workplace masturbation) routinely lead to violent sex games in blackface, statutory rape (which the minor in question invariably enjoys), and, of course, death. Like Peter, the self-loathing buppie painter-antihero of Burning, Bradshaw’s work may have unconscious reactionary/puritanical impulses; much of this show plays like an X-rated Christian Hell House, a scared-straight special gone cancerously askew. But these crypto-conservative manias, like all impulses in the Bradshavian worldview, cannot be governed. They must out, usually via that indispensable conduit, the penis.

Bradshaw prides himself on eliminating everything from his plays—small talk, structure, art itself—except sheer id. So much id! Great ropy rivers of id, churning, undammed and unchanneled, irrigating and often flooding what little play is actually there, sometimes stagnating in little coagulate spooge-pools. There’s no social or behavioral elision whatsoever between impulses: a character is talking haughtily of Strindberg one moment, drilling an underage kid in the art-hole the next. I’m not sure if Bradshaw’s acting on his characters’ inner demons or his own, and I’m not sure it matters: The point is, he rejects “psychological realism” and embraces a kind of psychopathic naturalism, and the results, intentionally or not so much, are horribly funny. Theater produces many, many bad plays, most of them dead boring; it’s not so often we’re treated to a real howler. Burning might be the Glitter of cross-racial butt sex. Was this what Bradshaw had in mind? If so, he didn’t let his inflectionless director Scott Elliott in on the joke — and the evil little Mystery Science Theater 3000 snickerer within me thanks both of them heartily for that miscommunication.

Burning is at the New Group through December 17.

Theater Review: My Burning Sensation