Off Broadway Theater Review: BURNING (The New Group)

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by Thomas Antoinne on November 18, 2011

in Theater-New York

BURNING BRADSHAW

Post-modern theater has yet to live up to the hype.  Whether deconstructing established forms or employing historical eclecticism, American playwrights writing within a post-modern sensibility struggle to justify their dogged pursuits.  Coincidentally, they have yet to produce a single great American play.  Thomas Bradshaw, one of the shining stars in the post-modern constellation, is having one of his latest plays, Burning, produced as the season opener for The New Group on Theatre Row.  And Burning is a shining example of how post-modern theater gets it wrong.

The New Group presents Burning by Thomas Bradshaw – directed by Scott Elliott – Off Broadway Theater Review by Thomas AntoinneThomas Bradshaw has been anointed by many venerable institutions from the Guggenheim to the Lark.  Thus far in his career, Bradshaw has created a brand for himself writing a certain kind of play that he himself calls “reality on crack.”  He eschews the world of psychological realism for something closer to hyper-realism.  His characters occur in a state of what he refers to as “Pure Id,” which means that, most of the time, they basically act like children without any social filters.  His characters will turn from “I love you” to “I hate you” on a dime.  A major element in writing characters who exist in the “Pure Id” state is that the actors speak all their subtext all the time.  Bradshaw’s other signature detail is that his plays often end with a court summation to simmer the audience down again.  He offers this wrap up argument, in part, to send the audience home to come up with their own verdict.  Bradshaw pretty much follows this template in Burning.

The New Group presents Burning by Thomas Bradshaw – directed by Scott Elliott – Off Broadway Theater Review by Thomas AntoinneBradshaw draws his plot from a traditional epic structure. Burning is the story of several groups of people interconnected by their passions, be they creative, political, or personal.  German Neo-Nazis collide with an African-American painter in a mixed race relationship.  A recently orphaned, mediocre actor desperately insinuates himself into the world of Broadway’s gay mafia.  Bradshaw’s signature “Pure Id” style synthesizes with his epic-styled plot to create a theatergoing experience of uncomfortable detachment as characters continually interface and overlap.

The New Group presents Burning by Thomas Bradshaw – directed by Scott Elliott – Off Broadway Theater Review by Thomas AntoinneBurning also plays with the theatrical fluidity of time.  We watch characters in the 1980s at the same time that we see them in the present.  The moment of that lens finally coming together should have been a satisfying, compelling theatrical “Aha!” moment for the audience.  Instead, when that moment finally arrives, we have become so alienated by the play’s style, it feels like we are experiencing a botched “Oh no!” moment of dramaturgy.

As you would expect, a theatrical world designed for the Pure Id includes lots of sex.  It also includes a lot of death, racism, and violence (which seems to be left out of the play’s buzz and promotional materials.)  The acting ensemble appears game and up for the task of selling Bradshaw’s style, in and out of the bedroom.  Bradshaw The New Group presents Burning by Thomas Bradshaw – directed by Scott Elliott – Off Broadway Theater Review by Thomas Antoinnedoesn’t seem interested in character arcs, so they’re off the hook when it comes to any expectations associated with acting psychological realism.  As long as the actors live in the moment, they’ve done what’s asked.  Speaking pure subtext, however, is a curious acting challenge.  The characters relate primarily in the clichés that are inherent in subtext, but they must also communicate in a way that feels natural.  Most of the actors have trouble getting beyond the awkwardness that is a part of speaking Bradshaw’s lines.  Sporadic giggles from the audience reveal the delicate tightrope actors must walk to keep the play clear of satire.  Stephen Tyrone Williams as Peter, the African-American painter, stand-outs in the cast, never sending up the play’s style, but delivering both the sexual and non-sexual scenes with a grounded sense of commitment.

The New Group presents Burning by Thomas Bradshaw – directed by Scott Elliott – Off Broadway Theater Review by Thomas AntoinneDid I mention the sex?  There’s so much nudity and simulated sex in Burning that it often becomes a distraction from the actual story.  And not in the way you’d expect.  Because of the logistics of the stage (accompanied by some awkward and unimaginative staging by director Scott Elliott), the audience sees a lot of flaccid genitalia seconds before they’re supposed to suspend disbelief that they’re witnessing full-on penetration.  For all of the sex, the New Group production is surprisingly unsexy.

Taking Bradshaw at his word, what is he trying to tell us in Burning?  Not a whole lot.  Based on the text, the “burning” of Bradshaw’s title refers to human instinct of any kind in the Pure Id state.  Unfortunately for Bradshaw, Middle School Value Clarification curriculum covers this same conversation more efficiently and reaches the same tragic conclusions.

The New Group presents Burning by Thomas Bradshaw – directed by Scott Elliott – Off Broadway Theater Review by Thomas AntoinneDirector Scott Elliott must bear some of the blame.  As The New Group’s Artistic Director, choosing to open a season with a play like Burning is a definite statement and a questionable choice.  One news story about Penn State is all it takes to see the tragedy of Pure Id states.  No need to spend two and a half hours in a theater to come to the same outcome.  Aside from the current buzz around Bradshaw, Elliott’s production doesn’t make a compelling case for telling this story in this style at this moment in history.

America’s current batch of post-modern playwrights reminds me of J.D. Salinger’s fictional talk show, It’s a Wise Child.  They get early praise for clever ideas, but ultimately there’s not enough theatrical craft in their ideas to engage the audience.  The New Group presents Burning by Thomas Bradshaw – directed by Scott Elliott – Off Broadway Theater Review by Thomas AntoinneBradshaw shares an unforgivable trait common among many post-modern playwrights:  disdain for the audience.  Why invite an audience to theater and deny them emotional engagement?  Bradshaw may be successful in consistently showing us a world where the Pure Id runs amok, but he doesn’t succeed in creating a satisfying play.  Bradshaw has bragged that his plays are “reality without the boring parts.”  Burning, however, bores more than it ever glows.  While exploration is an essential part of any artist’s journey, Burning is evidence that Bradshaw should get moving onto the next phase of his writing career.

photos by Monique Carboni

Burning
Acorn Theatre on Theatre Row (NYC)
scheduled to end on December 17
for tickets, visit http://thenewgroup.org/

{ 1 comment }

richard kline November 30, 2011 at 6:56 am

this is a brilliant review. saw the play last night and could not agree more. writing anything more inflammatory about the experience would reduce me to the Pure id state.

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