In Praise of Adam Driver, Barbarian Sweetie

Adam Driver in Burn This (Matthew Murphy)
Driver doesn’t just carry Burn This, he picks it up by its heels and swings it around West 44th Street.

There are two rampaging simians running amok across the Broadway stage these days. One is King Kong and the other is Adam Driver.

Driver is a handy illustration of the difference between an actor and a star. Mistaking him for the former, Martin Scorsese put him in a film about 17th-century Portuguese missionaries. Bad move. Driver in Silence was as odd a placement as Keanu Reeves in Dangerous Liaisons. Both actors are overpoweringly American and can’t be slotted into previous eras. To put Driver in a contained period piece is like giving Samson a buzz cut, and he isn’t much better in space-opera mode in the Star Wars movies, in which he comes across less as a paragon of evil than as a moody rock drummer.

Ah, but his latest effort will make a believer out of even the most dedicated skeptic. Though Burn This first hit the stage when Driver was three years old, it feels like it was written specifically for him. Now that the play is being revived on Broadway for the first time since its Reagan-era debut, Driver doesn’t just carry it, he picks it up by its heels and swings it around West 44th Street. He is by turns endearing, exasperating, exhausting, and hilarious. He fills the room to such a degree that there is no space for anyone else in it to breathe, although he has such a mindless, loopy innocence that maybe King Kong is the wrong comparison. He’s more like Clifford the Big Red Dog.

Burn This debuted on Broadway in 1987 with John Malkovich starring, and the revival’s director, Michael Mayer, gently reminds us we’re in the era of shoulder pads and leg warmers by working in fitting musical cues drawn from top 40 radio. The play has been framed as a sizzling sex drama: Conflagration is promised. But it actually isn’t incendiary at all. At its core it’s a romcom, albeit an R-rated one that finds a lot of humor in profanity and cocaine binges. It adds  few new wrinkles to a formulaic story of a nice girl with big dreams who is torn between a sexy bad boy and a dependable rich guy (who could once have been played by Bill Pullman). When the titular fire does arrive, it is contained to an ashtray.

The good news is that it’s a highly entertaining if not particularly challenging evening at the theater made more than worthwhile by the punchy wit of the playwright, Lanford Wilson (1937-2011) and the talents of the actors playing the two competing swains. Wilson begins in a minor key, with Keri Russell (turning in an unexceptional performance) as a dancer turned choreographer, Anna, who has just returned from the funeral of her friend and roommate, a gay dancer who died in a boating accident. Anna, who is onstage virtually throughout, is ostensibly the central figure of the play but not really; her mild sweetness as she contemplates a new piece of choreography forms the blank canvas upon which the men of the play paint their fears and jokes and aspirations. Anna’s boyfriend — he is trying to coax her into marriage — is a handsome playboy-screenwriter, Burton (David Furr is hugely charming in the role) who is, like just about every screenwriter you’ll ever see portrayed on stage, cynical to dismissive about his craft.

Driver’s character, Jimmy, who got the nickname Pale from a favorite beverage, is the kind of working-class wrecking ball who could have been played by Marlon Brando. He makes his entry like a coked-up moose, clattering into the apartment Anna shares with her surviving roommate, Larry (Brandon Uranowitz), the model of the wisecracking gay bestie who became a stage cliché and then graduated to becoming a movie cliché. Pale is raging uncontrollably but hilariously about a fight over a parking space, and Anna lets him in because he is obviously related to the dead roommate, Robbie. He turns out to be Robbie’s furious, and furiously blue-collar, brother, a kind of photo-negative version of a man we haven’t met but are led to believe was as gentle, sophisticated, and artistic as Jimmy/Pale is savage and undomesticated. As was once said of another accomplished apartment intruder, Pale is a loathsome, offensive brute, yet we can’t look away. He goes from denouncing the world to flirting with Anna to referring to his brother as a “faggot” to sobbing about his late brother’s fate under a blanket to telling Anna “You almost got no [breasts] at all, you know?” He has a wife and two kids, it turns out, but these barely excite comment, any more than his abuse of cocaine, which is treated entirely for laughs. Welcome to the Eighties.

That Pale has a creative side as well — maybe a more deeply felt one than exists in Anna or Burton, each of them professional artists, though Pale is merely the manager of a restaurant in New Jersey — is an intriguing subtext of the play, but Wilson doesn’t fully develop the idea. Instead, he steers the story into standard opposites-attract territory. Anna gets pulled into the Pale vortex by his combination of anguished fragility and barbarian energy, the very traits that Brando’s Stanley Kowalski wielded, although Pale is a comedy version of Stanley. Her journey from bewilderment to vexation to strange attraction is likely to mirror what the audience goes through, thanks to Driver. A performer without his big-shouldered presence and tornado vitality would not be able to carry off Burn This. In lesser hands — in smaller hands — Pale would be so annoying that you’d spend the play hoping and expecting Anna to toss him back into the street from which he came. As it is, though, Driver makes this play so richly entertaining that you never want Pale to leave, and you could hardly blame Anna if she felt the same.