There's something about the 1980s that just doesn't sit well in the early 21st century. Try as we might to be nostalgic for the big shoulder pads, the moody British techno-pop, and all that Nicaragua-Contra cocaine that kept everyone partying till dawn at Studio 54, our affection for the decade is strained. As it began, it saw the final and irreversible commodification of art, a soul-sucking enterprise that compromised the spirits of all but the most independent-minded artists. As it progressed, a plague know as the "gay cancer" would be identified as AIDS, kill a matinee idol named Rock Hudson, and become an international health nightmare.
Both the commodification of art and the scourge of AIDS are more germane to a contemporary discussion of Lanford Wilson's Burn This, now through August 31, 2008, at Shakespeare Santa Cruz, than the company's artistic director, Marco Barricelli, might have hoped. First performed in 1987, Burn This amply covers the former in the person of one of the play's two secondary characters, Burton (David Arrow), a rich kid turned richer screenwriter who is extremely clear-eyed about the value of his particular means of artistic expression. "Movies," he says, "are some banker's speculation about how the American adolescents want to see themselves that week. Period. They're produced by whores, written by whores..."
At least Arrow's self-absorbed Burton is aware of the cesspool he's swimming in, which gives his shallow character context and, ironically, depth. Larry (Stephen Bel Davies), the play's other secondary character, is a flamboyantly gay caricature who has no such advantage, at least based on the stereotype that Wilson created for our amusement. Back in 1987, when Burn This was first performed, it was apparently enough to introduce an openly gay character like Larry to straight audiences. No doubt Wilson felt that he needed all the queen-like mannerisms and mock-salacious preoccupations with sex that he could get, lest the suits and evening gowns in the audience miss what was then something of an act of artistic bravery. Davies delivers this act expertly. But from the vantage point of 2008, the omission of any reference whatsoever to AIDS, to say nothing of the impact it unquestionably must have been having on the lives of Larry and his late gay roommate, Robbie, threatens the credibility of the subsequent drama between the play's two principles. Why Barricelli thought this incomplete time capsule of a play would resonate with contemporary audiences is a mystery.
At its core, Burn This is the story of two opposites exploring their uneasy mutual attraction in the wake of a devastating shared loss. We meet Anna (Yvonne Woods) first. Even in 1987, this bohemian dancer with the rich boyfriend (that would be Burton) must have seemed a cliché, with all her speeches about the importance of her work and how her dedication to it has prevented her, until only recently, from realizing that her 32-year-old biological clock is ticking. Though it's not said in so many words, part of her dismay and guilt over the loss of her and Larry's dear friend and beloved roommate must be the realization that she's chosen to spend a good deal of time hiding out in the company of men inclined to do little about it.
There's more we learn about Anna before we meet her opposite number. She is supposed to be in shock from the death of Robbie, who has died in a freak boating accident. Yet somehow this tough artist, who with her sinewy exterior and lone-wolf individualism feels perfectly at home in her gritty industrial loft in pre-Giuliani lower Manhattan, can't handle the familiar social conventions of Robbie's funeral. The primary cause of her vexation, she tells us, is that Robbie's relatives had never seen him dance, which for Anna is itself a kind of death. Sheltered from the reality of the young man's sexuality, the family assumes that Anna must be Robbie's girlfriend. This and a few other events combine to give Anna a full-on freak out session, which Woods's Anna recounts with perverse glee. A bit of a drama queen, this one.
Into her life bursts Pale (Gene Gillette), Robbie's foul-mouthed, hard-drinking, gun-toting older brother. Pale and Anna, it would seem, have nothing in common. Even their mutual link to Robbie is imperfect: She lived and created art with Robbie for three intense and fulfilling years. Pale is 12 years older than Robbie, so he barely knew his younger brother. Yet Anna cannot help but feel a connection to Pale, and is undone by, among other things, the physical resemblance between the two.
Woods as Anna is good, using her dancer's frame effectively, but Gillette's Pale is the revelation of this show. Pale is no still water but he does run deeper than you'd expect. This is a guy who is literally burning up from the inside out. He's forever taking off his shoes and shirts and opening the windows wide, even though there's a New York winter outside. To look at him you'd think he was a fidgety, hair-trigger extra on The Sopranos, but beneath his vulgar exterior is an artist of sorts, a man of culture who can cook, knows his Vivaldi, Puccini, and Shostakovich, and, to hear him tell it, likes getting laid and clean underwear in equal measure. None of which explains precisely why Burton, for all his success, wealth, and good looks, doesn't have a chance against a head case like Pale. But then no one ever said the heart was a logical organ.
Naturally these two come together, and the story of how they do so and what happens next holds more than a few surprises. Throughout, the props and set-dressing details ring true, carefully signaling the time period in which the story takes place, which makes Wilson's cultural and historical omissions all the more glaring. I suspect that at some point in the future it will be enough for this play to simply be a story of two unlikely people finding each other in difficult circumstances, without too much regard for the environment that alternately nurtures them and saps their will. Until then, Burn This remains a vintage that would probably benefit from a bit more time in the bottle.
Burn This runs through August 31, 2008, at the Theatre Arts Mainstage at UC Santa Cruz. Tickets are $12 to $44. For tickets and information visit santacruztickets.com or call 831-459-2159.