Behind all the clutter, and the several characters with mix and match relationships there's a central story which could have been truly interesting if better told. It’s the mid-80’s: a successful Black painter whose name “doesn’t sound Black,” who’s married to a white woman, and who hides his race when he can to avoid having his paintings evaluated with an affirmative action attitude, learns on a trip to Germany that “I really am a Black man” (hard to miss given the total nudity here and everywhere in this play); at the same time he becomes aware of his deep, erotic attachment to his now dead sister, Lucy: [erratum: Lucy is the mother of Peter's second cousin: for a fuller explanation and how this provides a different view of the artist see the comment on this post by Paul] he calls the Black prostitute with whom he has fallen in love by [his sister's] name, and notes, smelling his fingers, that she smells as he always knew Lucy would. (This is just a sample.)
This is not the only over-close [brother and sister] relationship: it’s really amazing how the playwright has time to inject various taboos and variety of penetrations so many times in one standard length play – but he works at it.
Other characters include a mature gay male pair, actor and producer, and a fourteen-year old boy they take in to their home out of compassion and for fun. Also there's a playwright who's absurdly willingly to alter all the meaning out of his play at the drop of a producer’s request, and a man whose profession I missed [he's the fourteen-year old boy grown up, and trying to become an actor: see Paul's comment] but whose role is to enable a young Black man (Lucy’s son) to discover he’s gay, and there are a Nazi skinhead brother and his like minded, paralyzed, sister.
The characters are lightly drawn to the point of caricatures. The playwright seduces the fourteen-year old by their shared intellectual excitement over a simplistic line or two from the Marquis de Sade (the Marquis' book is pushed on people often in this play). The successful theatrical producer demands excessive cuts – from five characters to one — and total revisions from the playwright to which the playwright accedes without a struggle: there’s no exploration of the truths behind these clichés and it’s all done with the careless exaggeration of a joke.
More importantly, although the Black artist’s paintings are described as showing violence against Blacks, this is never put face to face with his leading his life as a white man, and never used to explore what by the end of the play we're given to understand are struggles within his divided personality. Everything about these characters is on the surface.
An exception: the skinhead and his sister, paralyzed in her legs by an automobile accident that killed their parents, share their inherited fascist ideology, belief in a "pure" Germany and hatred of various groups including most particularly for this play Blacks. In contrast to the cartoon-like strokes Bradshaw uses for the other characters, these are subtly delineated and the tense, covert/overt erotic relationship between them well developed, strengthened also by the fine portrayals of Drew Hildebrand and Reyna de Courcy. Here the inevitable, but remarkable, love scene illuminates character and serves a true dramatic purpose. In the relationship of the brother and sister, we see the reallly talented playwright at work.
I made a point of seeing Burning because I'd been impressed by two of Bradshaw's earlier full-length plays, Dawn and, even cleverer, The Bereaved. I expected him to get better and better and I still do. I hope he gets the Marquis de Sade out of his system with Burning and that he’ll go on to something that fulfills his talent.
The much handed around book of the Marquis de Sade reminded me of an amusing and recognizable description of a college English class in Jeffrey Eugenides’ new novel, The Marriage Plot, set like the play in the 1980's. "The reason de Sade was preferable was that his shocking sex scenes weren’t about sex but politics. They were therefore anti-imperialist, anti-bourgeois, anti-patriarchal, and anti-everything a smart young feminist should be against.” (p. 24) I don’t know if Bradshaw intended the sex in Burning to have some broader or revolutionary purpose but it doesn’t. It's there for its own sake and to show how at times, calisthenically speaking, it can make people look really silly.
Burning plays at the Acorn Theatre, The New Group, on Theatre Row, West 42nd Street in Manhattan, through December 17. For information and tickets, click on live link of title.
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