Driver’s magnetic intensity is the primary calling card for one of the most anticipated productions of the spring Broadway season, the Hudson Theater’s revival of Lanford Wilson’s drama Burn This, in which he will perform the part of Pale, the tempestuous restaurant manager at the center of the play. This is a coming home of sorts, not just because Driver first gained some acclaim in the New York theater world, but also because this 1987 work represents important unfinished business for the 35-year-old. During his final year at Juilliard, Driver first played Pale—appearing opposite his then girlfriend, the actress Joanne Tucker, now his wife—in what was the Juilliard equivalent of a senior thesis. It was unusual for a student to take on such a difficult and challenging role, but Driver had so impressed the school’s drama director that an exception was made.
And yet, when Driver is asked about that performance, he shakes his head bashfully. “I am embarrassed at all the things I didn’t understand,” he says. He is referring to the actions of his character, tasks as mundane as making a pot of tea: “I didn’t drink tea growing up in Indiana.” But the work involves nuance that would be hard for any actor in his early 20s to fully absorb, and he’s aware of that too. “You live life a little, and there’s just dynamics you don’t understand until you have a bit more experience.”
Those dynamics unfold in the unlikely romance between Pale and a sensitive modern dancer named Anna, played in this production by Keri Russell. The two are brought together when Pale’s brother, Robbie, a gay dancer who is closeted to his family and close to Anna, dies in a boating accident. Pale barges into Anna’s loft following the funeral, upending her passionless relationship with a screenwriter.
Burn This has the classic romantic-comedy love-triangle structure, but it’s much rougher around the edges—a scathing, portrait of a grief-stricken couple drawn to each other despite their best impulses. When it premiered on Broadway in 1987, the drama, which starred John Malkovich in a star-making turn along with Joan Allen, who won the Tony Award for Best Actress, was seen as an indirect commentary on the AIDS crisis—the sudden loss of Robbie echoing the rapid devastations of the epidemic. The director of the current revival, Tony-winner Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening), thought it was too coy about the connection: “I remember thinking, It’s about AIDS, but he’s not saying it. Why isn’t he saying it?”
In 2002, when Burn This had its first major New York revival in an Off Broadway production that starred Ed Norton and Catherine Keener, the story of New Yorkers struggling to cope with the fallout of an inexplicable death seemed a comment on September 11. Russell sees this new production as transcending the current social or political climate, even as a hiatus from the tumult of the world. “There’s something very human about it, not political,” she says. “This is really about people and need and love and sex.” But Mayer believes that the drama is so rooted in the era in which it was written that it must be presented as a period piece. “It’s the only way to do it,” he says.
And yet this production is, more than any thematic concern, really about Adam Driver, both for brass-tacks reasons—a major Broadway revival today all but requires a star of his clout—and also aesthetic ones. Burn This offers a chance to see Driver’s Pale span from comic chaos to violent threat, from bluster to paralyzing sensitivity. Along with Stanley Kowalski from A Streetcar Named Desire and Ricky Roma of Glengarry Glen Ross, Pale belongs in the pantheon of characters that can burnish the legacy of a young actor. “Boys love to do this part,” Russell said. “Everyone likes to be a tough guy.”
Anna’s is a quieter role, with fewer dramatic speeches but with a tempestuous subtext. Like Driver, Russell has a personal history with the play, if a more indirect one. After her big break on Felicity in the late nineties, she moved to New York and considered giving up acting. “I thought, Maybe this is too much,” she says. “I have no life. Being famous is weird. Maybe I want to go back to school.” She was about to apply to college when she got a small role in a 2005 movie called The Upside of Anger, starring Joan Allen. Russell recalls listening to Allen talk about Burn This and how satisfying the work was. “I thought, She’s been doing this for a while and she’s OK. She’s smart. Her face isn’t all fucked up,” Russell says. “I thought, OK, maybe I can try it.”
In recent years, much of Russell’s time has been consumed by The Americans. When that TV series came to an end last year, she wanted to try something more intimate, though she was nervous about doing a play. But as soon as Russell read for Anna, Mayer and Driver agreed she was perfect for the role. The fact that her character was not the focus appealed to her: “He can be the showy one, and I can sneak in behind.”
But the play is also about absence and uncertainty. “In the eighties, people were dying, and no one had an answer,” Driver says. “That loss without an explanation is terrifying. This play articulates that really well—the anxiety of not knowing. That is what doing a play is.”