Malkovich Shines In 'Burn This' Lanford Wilson Play Opens On Broadway

Posted: October 15, 1987

NEW YORK — John Malkovich and Joan Allen in "Burn This," a new play by Lanford Wilson. Directed by Marshall W. Mason, set by John Lee Beatty, costumes by Laura Crow, lighting by Dennis Parichy. Presented by The Circle Repertory Co./ Mark Taper Forum at the Plymouth Theatre, 45th Street west of Broadway, New York City.

Readings of "Burn This" began in January 1986 but the Broadway opening did not occur until last night - for the best of reasons. Namely, that John Malkovich was locked into a film commitment with Steven Spielberg. Since Malkovich is vitally important to this play, the play marked time until he was available.

There seems little question that Lanford Wilson wrote the part of Pale, a Cro-Magnon man with the temperament of King Kong, the appetites of Rabelais and the soul of Edgar A. Guest, with John Malkovich in mind.

Pale makes his first entrance by nearly battering down the door of a loft in a converted cast-iron building in lower Manhattan in the middle of the night. He doesn't know the occupants - nor they him - but someone within, a slender young woman who is a dancer by occupation, happens to be holding the personal effects of Pale's late brother, who formerly shared the loft. Anna, the dancer, admits him.

Pale lurches in like Frankenstein's monster and communicates about as well. His flying shoulder-length hair constantly obscures his vision. He wears a neatly pressed business suit, though one tends not to notice this until he complains about a wrinkle in his pants. He is positively manic about the difficulty of parking a car in the neighborhood. He scatters almost as many f- words, s-words, mf-words and a-h words as there are words to modify, possibly a new world's record for a native American play. (Someone - I think it is Anna - comments that Pale has "completely mastered half the art of conversation.")

Against all odds, and within a matter of minutes, Pale manages to seduce Anna the dancer - something about the way Pale's nose tilts up, just like his brother's. Anna appears to have had a glowing emotional attachment to the brother, also a dancer, notwithstanding his homosexuality.

Next to Pale, Stanley Kowalski was a bleeding wimp. Pale is such a tower of repulsiveness wrapped around such a hearth-fire of sentimentality that I almost expect to see cuddly Pale dolls in the Christmas marketplace. Malkovich is Pale; Pale is the play. There may be life for one without the other but it would be a puzzlement.

In the cold morning's light "Burn This" is less of a play than Wilson's wondrous way with words would have us believe. I found myself furiously jotting down one great line after another, not one of which could later stand up and sing apart from the script. Yet, there is not a moment in these nearly three hours when this resonating play does not command our attention, even after one is struck by the reality that its natural ending is the blackout line of Scene 3, Act II, and the tacked-on final scene as superfluous as it is gagging.

"Burn This" is the perfect play for the yuppie trade (the preview audience on Monday evening was about evenly split between yuppie couples and festive gays). The characters, a menage a trois plus one, include, in addition to Pale and Anna, Anna's only surviving original roomie Larry, a young male homosexual with a tart tongue but lots of humankindness, whose chief purpose is to deliver the four-per-minute punchlines Wilson has strung together for him, and Burton, Anna's off-and-on lover, a grown-up rich kid with a knack for writing eminently producible movie scripts.

Larry has an unspoken and unrequited crush on Burton. Burton can't make up his mind whether he wants to marry Anna until Pale crashes in and bulldozes her affections, and then, of course, it is much too late.

Anna at one point struggles to her feet and screams: "I am sick of the age I am living in - I am being raped, and I don't like it!" And still the poor girl walks around the loft, as Pale sagely puts it in one of his more enlightened and intelligible moments, "dressed like Lucia di Lammermoor."

Joan Allen makes a most lissome and sympathetic Anna. Jonathan Hogan, as Burton, reminds us of an engaging young David Hartman, and Lou Liberatore plays Larry with brio.

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