theater reviews

Theater Review: Men Behaving Bigly, in Burn This and Socrates

Adam Driver and Keri Russell in Burn This. Photo: Matthew Murphy

These days, in a certain fierce and unforgiving crowd of theater folk, revivals are often considered guilty until proven innocent. (The Twitter buzz around the recent announcement of a starry Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? scheduled for 2020 was … not kind.) The brouhaha usually boils down to a simple question, “Why are we doing this play again?” I’ve asked it, and I’ll keep asking it. Regardless of its tone, it’s a really important thing to keep poking at. But there’s a dirty little secret that we don’t always like to acknowledge in our quest for topicality: When a production is good, it has reason enough to exist. And Michael Mayer’s revival of Lanford Wilson’s 1987 play Burn This is pretty dang good — mostly because, playing the human furnace at its center, Adam Driver is straight-up great.

Driver plays Pale, a scowling, prowling, profanity-spouting restaurant manager from New Jersey who always gives the impression that he’s just kicked down the door to the room he’s entered. He takes over spaces like some kind of massive alpha cat, stalking restlessly, marking the furniture and yowling. In the second scene of Burn This, he explodes into the spare, artsy lower Manhattan loft of the aspiring choreographer Anna (Keri Russell) and her roommate Larry (Brandon Uranowitz), and once he’s there, he never really leaves.

Anna and Larry are in mourning. Their third roommate — a brilliant young dancer named Robbie who inspired Anna to go from performing dances to making them — has drowned, and in him Anna has lost both her muse and her best friend. As a human being, she’s naturally inward-turning: serious, creative, ambitious, self-doubting, a little cynical, a little superior — a maker of work, not a sharer of self. She thrives in relationships that sustain her without asking for all of her, which is why she got an apartment with two gay men and why she treats her wealthy, well-meaning screenwriter boyfriend, Burton (David Furr), like a friendly acquaintance she meets every once in a while for coffee. In spite of their disparate suits of armor, she’s more like Pale — who is Robbie’s older brother and “could be his double” — than she knows. They’re both workaholics. They both care about presenting, in their own particular world and idiom, as successful and in control. They’re both afraid of their own desires and cripplingly lonely.

Wilson’s play is about the overwhelming magnetism between these two wandering, grieving souls, but it’s also more than a love story. It’s interested in literary questions of romance and tragedy, and it’s also that thing that still feels rare and refreshing in American theater even three decades after it was written: a play about class. In scene one, Larry tells Burton — a writer who hates “stupid urban microcosms” and who’s always searching for the epic — the story of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, and in scene two, Wilson’s own condemned traveler appears, searching, whether he knows it or not, for “a girl who’ll really love him.” Wilson is messing with myth inside his own urban microcosm, thereby expanding it. He’s also complicating the turgid self-seriousness of traditional romanticism by digging smartly into background and privilege. Anna is New York: intellectual and artistic and apparently unworried about her next paycheck, a little complacent about her own enlightenment, ready to gag at Robbie’s family of conservative religious hicks. Pale is New Jersey: loud and blunt and not about to be condescended to, “part of this country’s great working force,” a man who will rant about “fuckin’ fruits” and also dissolve into inconsolable weeping for his gay brother, whom he loved ferociously. Part of the play’s power lies in the broad, generous humanity that Wilson gives to both.

The play’s inherent risk, though, is that Pale will eclipse Anna by sheer force of personality, and despite Russell’s best efforts, this Burn This is indeed Driver’s show. Like the recent revival of True West in which Paul Dano receded in the face of Ethan Hawke’s marvelous, roiling rambunctiousness, Mayer’s production puts its focus on the bigger character to the detriment of the more difficult one. Anna is a hard part. It requires an actor who can play aloof on the surface while letting us glimpse subcutaneous strata of passion, confusion, and pain. Pale gets to burn on the outside, while Anna’s fire has to be masked and internal, and while Russell holds her own, we don’t see her heart. Her end–of–Act One hookup with Pale reads as cool and contemporary, a kind of going with the flow of the night, more about plain sex than all-consuming, irresistible chemistry. Without a wall of pheromones hitting us in that moment as if we’ve turned the corner into the perfume section at Macy’s, the play loses some of its punch. If this union doesn’t feel inevitable, even — against our better judgment — somehow necessary, then Wilson’s swing for the epic fences is in danger of falling short.

But Driver keeps the show aloft. Turns out Kylo Ren is immensely compelling onstage — a genuine weirdo in the hulking, strangely graceful body of a former Marine, unafraid of huge, ugly displays of emotion, blazing through Pale’s aggrieved, hilarious, F-word-peppered rants with the dexterity of a dancer like Robbie. At one point, he gently puts his hand on Russell’s breastbone, and it’s genuinely unsettling how much of her tiny torso his big human paw covers. He’s an unstoppable force and an immovable object. And he’s funny as heck. Whether he’s steaming over the injustices of the world — “Half my fuckin’ adult life, I swear to Christ, has been spent looking for a place to park!” — or padding around the room wearing one of Anna’s little happi coats, struggling to get his enormous limbs through the weird double armholes, Driver’s got a keen sense for comedy of multiple sizes, from the subtle background lazzo to the over-the-top tirade. It’s fun to watch him interact with Uranowitz’s wonderfully wry Larry — who can’t help smiling, as if from behind his hand, at such a splattery, honest display of personality — and with Furr’s Burton, who’s sympathetic despite his many blind spots, and who really doesn’t mean to bust out his aikido training on Pale. Pale just has a way of … bringing things out in people.

“Make it as personal as you can,” Burton tells Anna as she frets over the dance she’s choreographing. “Believe me, you can’t imagine a feeling everyone hasn’t had. Make it personal, tell the truth, and then write ‘Burn this’ on it.” Wilson’s voice still feels lively in part because he combines intellectual curiosity with compassion. He’s as interested in people as he is in ideas. All the characters in Burn This get to have their moments of wisdom and of weakness. Pale might be the biggest among them — and Driver’s performance is certainly this production’s crown jewel — but they’re all searching, tentatively navigating, in Anna’s words, “distance between people rather than distance between places.” Wilson is looking for the operatic in the intimate: “Everything doesn’t have to be epic,” Anna sighs to Burton, but the play’s experiment, still an engaging one, is to ask, “But what if everything is?”

Michael Stuhlbarg (center) as the title chracter in Socrates. Photo: Joan Marcus

There’s another big man doing a lot of talking at the Public, but this one’s in a play that’s much more interested in ideas than people. Not that there aren’t a whole lot of people in Socrates, the overlong, dramatically flat new play by usually-an-actor Tim Blake Nelson. In fact, there are so many actors wandering around the stage in togas — sorry, chitons — that it’s easy to start getting your Thrasymachuses mixed up with your Eryximachuses. (Socrates is the kind of play that calls for actual spear-carriers, which means a couple of pitiable ensemble members are there purely to fill wine bowls and move benches.) But only one of these actors really commands our attention. As the incorrigibly inquisitive title character — the ancient philosopher who objected to being called a teacher but still, the play argues, “taught us how to think” — Michael Stuhlbarg is a suitably magnetic martyr. Grizzled, bright-eyed, and crackling with boundless energy, he’s got a touch of Falstaff to him and a hint of Hamlet (he played the latter at the Delacorte in 2008). He’s tenacious, fearless, and infuriating — the kind of huge, morally uncompromising spirit that the timid, hypocritical world will inevitably stamp out.

If you can get through the first couple of scenes, it’s intermittently exciting to watch Stuhlbarg really go at it as Socrates gently, unsparingly uses reason to root out the pretenses and pieties of his fellow Athenians. Those initial scenes, however, are a long haul. First, we’ve got to make it through Nelson’s clunky framing device: Plato (a self-possessed Teagle F. Bougere) will tell the story of the Socrates he knew to “The Boy” (Niall Cunningham), a young student who’s obviously Aristotle, though the play pointlessly treats his identity like a titillating Easter egg. Then, we’ve all got to hang out for what feels like ages at an overblown exposition party. Director Doug Hughes instructs the majority of the cast to keep swilling wine and laughing uproariously (is there anything more awkward onstage than forced merriment?) while the strutting, muscly general Alcibiades (Austin Smith) holds court, filling us in at great length on all the background we might need — though we don’t really — on our protagonist. As Alcibiades boasts and roasts, spending a lot of time on his unsuccessful efforts as a lusty, knowledge-seeking youth to get in Socrates’s pants, Socrates himself keeps cringing. Stuhlbarg has a lot of lines like, “Must we listen to this?,” “Why do I squander my time on any of you?,” and, finally, “An end in sight!” It’s one of those painful sequences where you can tell that on some level, the writer himself is aware that a scene lacks purpose and — no matter how boisterously it’s staged — an actual engine. But instead of fixing it, he just makes the smart character comment on the problem, leaving the audience to wonder, alongside that character, how much longer they’ve got to stick this out.

It’s a rough start, and the fact that the play does eventually manage to pull up and away from it is a great credit to Stuhlbarg. And to Plato — the real one. Stuhlbarg’s the only actor who’s been given a compelling human being to play, and he plays him to the hilt. He’s a master of scale, leaping from self-effacing delicacy to towering oratory with elegance and ease. And he’s got the play’s best writing to work with, which happens when Nelson essentially dramatizes Plato’s Dialogues. When the ancient arguments take center stage, with Stuhlbarg giving them body and spirit, they’re still as pointed as knitting needles, poking illuminating holes in familiar, sanctimonious notions of democracy, morality, wisdom, and power.

Though, as the play and its hero near their end, there’s still plenty of padding and tedious false drama to wade through, Socrates is engaging in its intellectual commitment to the rigor and nuance of its subject’s thinking. One of its most moving accomplishments is to frame Plato’s famous cave allegory not as a stand-alone theory, but as the response to a long line of moral enquiry pursued by two great friends. Just before his execution, Socrates, still pondering, asks where human beings get the notion of equality, since true equality doesn’t actually exist as an observable phenomenon in the natural world. In other words, where do we get our virtues — justice, mercy, fairness, goodness, truth — and how do we envision them as perfect ideals when we ourselves are infinitely incapable of perfection? “If perfect concepts can’t exist in the physical world, but still we grasp them,” ventures Bougere’s Plato, hovering on the edge of something momentous, “we must at one point have encountered them elsewhere … Before we came into our bodies … Which if true might argue for the extended nature of our souls.” It’s not much of a drama, and at two hours and 45 minutes it’s about an hour too much of a play, but Socrates isn’t without its gifts. In its best moments, it lets us think alongside a magnificent, humane thinker, and in a world so hungry for generous, rational thought, that’s something.

Burn This is at the Hudson Theatre through July 14.
Socrates is at the Public Theater through May 19.

Theater: Men Behaving Bigly, in Burn This and Socrates