Burn This requires one set and four actors. The story and dialogue are true to life. So what did director Michael Mayer tell his cast—led by Keri Russell and Adam Driver—on their first day together?
“I’m really excited, but really scared. It’s been a while since I’ve done this.”
No, not directing; on the contrary, he’s been quite busy. But the New Wave-meets-Renaissance musical realm of Head Over Heels and the palatial Metropolitan Opera—which recently housed his productions of Marnie and La Traviata—clearly have a different energy.
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“My career has been nothing if not eclectic,” Mayer says. “A naturalistic play? I haven’t done one of those in a long time.” But challenge accepted: “Changing the tools that I have to tell stories keeps me on my toes; it keeps me young.”
This play in particular, beginning previews March 15 at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre, takes him directly to his younger years—back when he first encountered Lanford Wilson’s earlier works as a graduate student at NYU in the ’80s. Mayer considered the late author “one of the great living American playwrights of the slightly younger generation,” recalling getting lost in such plays as Fifth of July and Talley’s Folly.
And then came 1987’s Burn This.
It was the year of ACT UP. Princess Diana visited an HIV-positive patient. The AIDS Memorial Quilt was displayed for the first time. “The play captured exactly what New York was like at that moment, as so many people I knew were sick and were dying,” Mayer says. “This felt like Wilson’s AIDS play.”
However, HIV and AIDS are never referenced directly. Instead, the play follows two roommates and the estranged brother of a young gay man killed in a boating accident. But Mayer says that though socio-political ramifications may differ, the core feeling was no different: “It was still this crazy loss of a brilliant, beautiful artist. How do you recover from that?”
After first being announced for a 2017 bow, Mayer’s production was put on hold. The aforementioned projects kept him occupied, but now he’s ready, and in some ways thankful for the time away from the title. “I came back to it, and it reignited my passion for it. I got excited all over again.
“It was like an old friend I hadn’t spent enough time with.”