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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
BURNING
at Theatre Row

FULL FRONTAL
By JESSICA BRANCH

   Andrew Garman, Evan Johnson, Danny Mastrogiorgi/ Monique CarbonPh:

At first glance, the New Group’s production of Burning may seem like provocateurism plain and simple, featuring, as it does, neo-Nazi incest, gay men adopting an underage sex slave, and a whole lot of full-frontal nudity and simulated sex acts. But nothing is quite what it seems in this new play by Thomas Bradshaw. And while some of the expectation upsets are so extreme that their only raison d’etre might seem to be perversity, in the end this complex, compelling drama provides a nuanced and even insightful look into human relationships.

The play sets up a slow but inexorable collision course between Peter (Stephen Tyrone Williams), an African American artist who paints pictures of racial stereotypes and doesn’t allow his own race to be made public, and Michael (Drew Hildebrand), a German skinhead who works in a gallery in Berlin and devotes his free time to caring for his sister Katrin (Reyna de Courcy), who’s in a wheelchair following the car accident that killed their parents, also loyal Nazis. Along the way, this confrontation in the making becomes intertwined with the story of Chris (Evan Johnson and Hunter Foster), a 14-year-old hustler who tries to get into a performing-arts high school after his mother overdoses and winds up as houseboy to a middle-aged gay couple.

Spanning several continents and decades – and lasting close to three hours – the play might sprawl as well as shock in less capable hands. But director Scott Elliott keeps the action taut and controlled. No scene is wasted as the drama builds toward its well-constructed crescendo. And while there is a lot of territory covered here, literally and figuratively, he never loses sight of the fact that the play is not so much epic as an inner exploration of the depths of each of these characters.

Elliott is aided, of course, by the excellent cast he has assembled. Williams, as the enigmatic artist who, despite his white British wife and post-race rationales, may not be as enlightened as he thinks, builds in a slow burn to his ultimate explosion, and Johnson, as the young hustler grateful for a stable, loving home, are the two standouts. But also notable are Larisa Polansky as Peter’s wife, who’s determined to do the right thing, no matter how self-righteous is may seem, Hunter Foster as the grown-up but not quite entirely disillusioned Chris, and Vladimir Versailles as Peter’s positive-thinking young cousin from the projects.

Some of the strands are stronger than other – the home life of the neo-Nazis is the most strained of the narratives here – but the web they weave is spellbinding. And the taboos the play so spectacularly breaks point to the questions of love and identity that the play may not be able to answer, but with which it grapples more closely and honestly than many.    

 


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