Everybody Gets Burned in Thomas Bradshaw's Burning 

Written by Thomas Bradshaw
Directed by Scott Elliott

Thomas Bradshaw's Burning, making its premiere with the New Group (through December 17), sets out to be as incendiary as its title suggests. There are no rapes on stage—unusual for this fast-rising and controversial playwright—but there's more very realistic anal sex than has probably ever occurred in a play (at least any play that's been performed). There's also some incest, a very violent beating, and a trio of Neo-Nazis caught up in a kind of slapstick argument about the importance of fiber for healthy bowel movements. The writings of the Marquis de Sade are cited and recited repeatedly. Beyond apparent attempts to shock, which aren't all that shocking thanks in no small part to Scott Elliott's relatively subdued direction, Burning investigates in particular questions of racial identity, chosen and imposed family, and the importance of an artist's history to understanding their art. Its concerns are irrevocably tied up in different masculine archetypes so it's hardly surprising but still frustrating that Bradshaw's female characters are incredibly flimsy. All this and more, spread over nearly three non-linear hours, makes for a scattershot and deliberately over-the-top affair that raises a few worthwhile questions, affords some excellent performances and manages to sustain our interest as much due to its failures as thanks to its successes.

Bradshaw's web-like narrative opens in 1983 with that quintessential story about a gay teen fleeing to New York to become an actor. After his mother dies of an overdose teenage Chris (Evan Johnson) moves into a Greenwich Village apartment with much-older Jack (Andrew Garman, terrific as always), a well-known actor, and his partner Simon (Danny Mastrogiorgio), a Broadway producer. In the present HIV-positive Chris (Hunter Foster) shows up to a memorial service for a cousin of his brother-in-law Peter (Stephen Tyrone Williams), a successful young black artist who keeps his race a secret lest it influence the reception of his racially violent paintings. After the service Chris befriends the project-dwelling son of the deceased, Franklin (Vladimir Versailles), while Peter catches a flight to Berlin where he has a gallery show. One of the gallery's employees, Michael (Drew Hildebrand), leader of a local Neo-Nazi cell following his parents' recent deaths, at first welcomes this portrayer of racial violence but predictably recoils upon meeting Peter. While in Berlin the young black painter takes up with a Sudanese sex worker (Barrett Doss), the first black woman with whom he's ever slept—his pregnant British wife, Josephine (Larisa Polonsky), is white. So to recap, issues investigated or at least touched upon in this ravenous problem play include racial and sexual difference, cross-class relations, drug addiction, AIDS, orphanism, sex work, genocide, Naziism, same-sex parenting, art and its relation to the conditions of its production, and probably a few more. (Also incest, specifically incest with a disabled underage Nazi.)

These various plot strands are organized thematically rather than chronologically, with scenes usually connected by similar events and exchanges. Show tune melodies play during set changes, a punchline to many tense scenes that gets a few laughs initially but also takes away from the intensity of the preceding action. Even the jokes are double-edged and packed with -isms. Right before their first sexual encounter adult Chris asks Franklin to confirm a story he just told: "Wait, so your first sexual experience was being raped by a hermaphrodite?" Bradshaw manipulates us endlessly, but often with contradictory results. Burning's many polar opposites are constantly breaking each other down, adding texture and layers to what initially seem like deliberately stereotypical (male) characters. The female characters are mostly there to expedite the men's journeys. Though incredibly clumsy in many respects, Bradshaw's fragmented epic has many heartfelt moments, strong scenes—the aforementioned memorial service is a highlight—and salient ideas. It's a shame all these burning issues are left to smolder for nearly three hours.

(Photo: Monique Carboni)

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