During intermission of the New Group’s Burning, which kicks off their 2011-12 season at the Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row, we discussed whether we thought Thomas Bradshaw’s multistory show was a bedroom farce, a sly send-up of theatrical conventions, a black comedy, a campy examination of love and sex, a self-reflexive absurdist narrative, a meditation on art and death, or a serious melodrama about different kinds of family. After the second act, we came to the conclusion that unfortunately, it is all of those things, and none of them, two and a half hours that cause nervous giggles, blank stares, and looks of confusion and disbelief. On a set divided into three sections — a bed, a living room with a couch, and a small table surrounded by a few chairs — three interconnecting stories evolve. In the early 1980s, Broadway producer Simon (Danny Mastrogiorgio) and his partner, stage star Jack (Andrew Garman), take in Chris (Evan Johnson), a fourteen-year-old wannabe actor whose mother has just OD’d. Simon and Jack are trying to get playwright Donald (Adam Trese) to turn his play about child sex trafficking into a one-man vehicle for Jack; meanwhile, all three men are interested in more than Chris’s woeful acting talent. In modern day, African-American painter Peter (Stephen Tyrone Williams) is preparing to head to Berlin for a solo show, not knowing that one of the gallery workers, neo-Nazi Michael (Drew Hildebrand), thinks he is a white artist who must certainly be a true believer. While Peter and his wife, Josephine (Larisa Polonsky), are going to have a baby, Michael is taking care of his half-sister, Katrin (Reyna de Courcy), who is confined to a wheelchair as the result of a car accident that claimed the lives of their parents a year earlier. And Peter’s young cousin, Franklin (Vladimir Versailles), needs money so he can give a proper burial to his recently deceased mother.
Bradshaw (Southern Promises, The Bereaved) goes all over the place with Burning, taking on the AIDS crisis, the neo-Nazi skinhead movement, drugs, pederasty, racism, prostitution, incest, and more, featuring a multitude of extremely graphic sex scenes that are at times funny, erotic, shocking, and heart-wrenching but eventually become overwhelming and boring. It’s as if Bradshaw had so much to say that he decided to put it all in one play instead of two or three, leaving director Scott Elliott, the founding artistic director of the New Group, with the impossible job of making it all come together. Burning has its moments, but not nearly enough of them, and the conclusion is hard to swallow, resulting in a lukewarm show with lofty ambitions that are always just out of reach.