Andrew Garman, Evan Johnson, and Danny Mastrogiorgio in BURNING. Photo by Monique Cabroni.
BOTTOM LINE: This erotically-charged work lacks a clear vision but offers plenty of dark humor and compelling ruminations on both sexuality and race.
Regardless of one’s final opinion of Thomas Bradshaw’s latest work, Burning, one has to admit that it’s certainly attention grabbing, with graphic on screen sex scenes, full frontal male nudity, incest, and authentic-looking drug use. While its content may not sit well with everyone’s sensibilities, its salaciousness guarantees that there is never a dull moment, even when it clocks in at nearly three hours.
The play tells four interconnected stories, all of which center around issues pertaining to race and sexual depravity:
Burning opens in New York City in the 1980’s with Chris (Evan Johnson), a fourteen-year old trying to attend a performing arts high school. He finds himself alone and orphaned after the sudden death of his mother. With nothing but dreams, he travels to New York City with the hope of being accepted into the high school and beginning a promising acting career. He convinces the gay director (Andrew Garman) and his boyfriend (Danny Mastrogiorgio) to take him in and is promptly turned into their personal slave: performing both sexual and domestic duties. The couple plays upon his naïveté by plying him with a copy of a Marquis de Sade book deriding human morality in favor of sexual hedonism. Chris interprets the book as his new life mission, believing that by exploring all aspects of his blossoming homosexual identity he will find direction in life. Meanwhile, the gay couple works alongside their friend Donald (Adam Trese) at developing a laughably terrible play about a middle aged man falling in love with a young Chinese girl he rescues from prostitution (its laughably shocking material serves to mirror the material of the Burning script).
Chris’s story also serves as an homage to the musical Pippin, a story with a similar multi character thread. However, whereas Pippin’s journey is one of enlightenment, Chris’s journey is one of self destruction as the only caring adults in his life lead him down a dark path. His physical body becomes corrupted along with his innocence when his HIV positive, middle-aged lover Donald has unprotected sex with him. When snippets of Pippin are played during the play’s darker moments, the music evokes an ironic humor.
We are later shown Chris (Hunter Foster) in present day as a slightly unhinged middle-aged man, who surprisingly still lives with his adoptive “parents” and spends his time chasing his acting dream (still not aware of the fact that his talent perhaps lies elsewhere). He sees a mirror of his younger self in Franklin (Vladmir Versailles), a 19-year old African American who just lost his mother, who like his, also was a self destructive drug addict. Chris pursues Franklin sexually, convincing him that he might possibly be gay. Much of the work’s humor comes from Franklin and Chris’s pre-sex discussion (one such joke involves Chris asking Franklin: “So your only sexual experience was being raped by a hermaphrodite?”).
In another storyline Franklin‘s second cousin Peter (Stephen Tyrone Williams) goes off to Berlin for a gallery showing as he has a large German fan base. However, the fact that Peter hides his own race and yet paints pictures of blacks being lynched and tortured, leads to Nazis misinterpreting his work as expressing their own ideals. While there, Peter confesses to a gallery curator that he has never slept with a black woman nor had anal sex with his wife (Larisa Polonsky), and he satisfies both desires by sleeping with a prostitute. When some kind of resolution to the racism is offered by the storyline, Bradshaw wisely quashes the possibility of redemption, keeping sentimentalism out of what is otherwise a very dark work.
The most notable attribute of Burning is that it has the most graphic and convincing sex scenes in live theater that I have ever witnessed. While audience members walking out is always a common sight with any work of Bradshaw’s, there is a certain appeal to Burning and its nonstop tour of debauchery and perverseness. While the overall vision behind Bradshaw pulling the curtain back on human perversity isn’t clear, it perhaps shows that the uglier, secret side of the male sexuality (limited to the male gender at least within the confines of the play’s events) isn’t limited to any one race or nationality. Rather, Caucasians, African Americans, Nazis, homosexuals, and heterosexuals are shown to all be one and the same through their intense sexual desires. It is the pursuit of these erotic desires that in the end destroys them. Their twisted paths through darkness are both laugh-inducing (to those with an appreciation for black humor) and highly compelling.
Much credit must be given to the cast who, besides taking on the surely difficult task of performing fully nude sex scenes, also pulls off every absurd line and twist in Bradshaw’s script with total believability. Kudos in particular go to Vladmir Versailles and Stephen Tyrone Williams who convincingly capture both their characters extreme naïveté as well as convincingly portray their moments of extreme emotion. Director Scott Elliott also creates a fully streamlined production, though the humor and irony become somewhat harder to discern as the play goes on. While its overall artistic vision is not always entirely apparent, never before have I laughed as hard during a theatrical performance as I did during Burning.
(Burning plays at The Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, through December 17, 2011. Performances are Mondays through Thursdays at 7PM; Fridays at 8PM; Saturday sat 8PM; and Sundays at 2PM. Tickets are $61.25 and are available at telecharge.com or by calling 212.239.6200. For more info visit thenewgroup.org.)