Tom Bradshaw’s “Burning” on Theatre Row

Drew Hildebrand, Reyna de Courcy, Jeff Biehl (photo credit: Monique Carboni)

When Thomas Bradshaw first appeared on the NYC scene with  Strom Thurmond is Not a Racist, I was taken by his ingenious and provocative approach. The play was staged several times – I saw an excerpt of it at Little Theater first –  but my favorite incarnation was one of the earlier versions at Soho Rep. It was stripped down to its essentials and was a remarkable comment on race in America. He took a racist icon, Strom Thurmond, and speculated on what his relationship must have been like with his mixed-race daughter, the result of a tryst with a household maid. He portrayed Thurmond as a complicated person who couldn’t seem to reconcile his genuine love of his daughter with his deeply ingrained prejudice against the Negro. It wasn’t hatred, per se, it was just a deep belief in their inherent genetic inferiority and the necessity to keep them in their place, for their own good. It was a very compelling piece.

Later, in December 2005, he presented Prophet  at PS 122. Painting with much broader strokes, Bradshaw started to get more explicit and shocking in this tale of a man who believes he has received divine guidance to oppress women, takes a black crack whore from the ghetto as a wife and just behaves abominably.  Purity, also staged at PS122, took on even more taboo topics – child rape, drug use – and was equally explicit in its overt presentation of bad behavior. By placing an “assimilated negro” English professor in juxtaposition to a more afrocentric and stereotypically “black” professor of African-American studies, he revealed the conflicts within black culture and black identity, the ridiculousness of white stereotypes and the hypocrisy of society at large. He was still painting with broad strokes, exploring satire and, perhaps, stinting on character development in favor of creating caricatures representing specific amalgamations of type, identity and attitude. But he was on to something.

At some point in there he presented Cleansed at the Brick Theater which is, in my opinion, one of his best plays, at least the version I saw. It was cleanly directed on a spare set with efficient and evocative staging. The play told the story of a young girl in Indiana, the product of a mixed marriage, who rejects her blackness to fall in with a bunch of neo-Nazi skinheads.

After that Tom kind of fell off my radar and I haven’t seen his work since. But I like following the trajectory of artists as they grow and I was excited to see Burning, produced by The New Group and directed by Scott Elliott.I’m always happy when someone from downtown breaks through. I was hopeful that with the resources provided by a successful company like The New Group and taut direction from an accomplished commercial director like Elliott, Bradshaw would see his work fully realized. Not only that, I assumed that he would have evolved over the past few years and that the process of working in a professional environment would provide some of the structure, dramaturgy and rigor that could take him to the next level as a playwright. Unfortunately, it has not.

I have no doubt that Bradshaw will get – if he has not already – his HBO deal, book deal, movie deal, etc.  I imagine that his brand of provocation and shock will bring him fame and fortune. But I can’t help but be disappointed with how little he has challenged himself in Burning and how he seems to have abandoned any inclination towards complexity, choosing rather to settle for easy stunts of sexual provocation and blunt, obvious topicality. His characters have lost any depth they ever had, serving as mere props or cardboard cutouts, moving from one improbable scenario to another with no motivation, no humanity, no logic beyond the inexorable inevitably of a convoluted and hackneyed plot.

I know Thomas personally and like him a lot. I have supported him from the beginning and continue to believe that he is a talented writer with important things to say. But Burning isn’t it. I have a feeling if we see each other again socially it will be awkward. Of course, I’ll still be scribbling on this website and working for peanuts downtown while he’ll be in L.A. writing a show for HBO and living the high life, so really, who gives a shit what I think?

So, with nothing really to lose, here goes:

Burning, clocking in at nearly three hours, is, above all, tedious, which I think is the worst thing you can say about a “provocative” play. There are some very funny moments, some great one-liners and hilarious situations, but they are too few and far between to sustain the play as a whole. The use of snippets of famous, sappy Broadway show tunes as entr’acte/scene change music is funny and self-referential the first few times, but soon grows old.

There are several intersecting stories being told and they take their time unfolding and intertwining. The first story is set in the early 80’s where a 14-year-old gay boy whose mother dies of a drug overdose moves to NYC and is taken in by an aging actor and his producer boyfriend. The second story is set in the present day, and is that of a black painter, married to a white English woman. The painter hides his identity as a black man because he doesn’t want to be judged or receive “affirmative action” and when he gets a solo show in Berlin the gallery thinks he is white, only to be surprised when he arrives at their door. The black painter has a cousin whose mother has just died, also of a drug overdose, and the painter must help bury the mother in the ghetto. The painter’s wife has a half-brother who, it turns out, is the gay 14-year-old from the previous story, reappearing in the present day. And yet another storyline is the German white supremacist who works at the Berlin gallery and must take care of his invalid sister who was paralyzed when their parents, local leaders of the neo-Nazi movement, are killed in a car crash.

You can probably imagine how all this unfolds. If not, I’m not going to spoil it for you. But it takes a really, really, really long time to get there. Along the way there is rampant drug use,  gay and straight anal sex, a gay pedophile three-way, incest, infidelity, AIDS, racially-motivated violence, and a laundry list of “shocking” behavior portrayed in excruciating detail onstage. To Tom’s credit there are many, many penises on stage, which goes a long way to even out the historical breast/penis imbalance in staged nudity and almost makes up for his completely unrealistic portrait of women. Not that any of the characters can be said to be fully – or even partially – developed, but the women, unsurprisingly, are even less developed than the men.

It sometimes felt like Bradshaw was afraid that this was his one shot at the big time and he wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to skewer anything. Everything is in there and comes in for the Bradshaw treatment – the gays, the blacks, Germans, theater people, visual artists and gallery owners, Catholics… so many I lost track. Like I said, some of it is really funny – and who doesn’t like to mock Germans!? – but at some point it is just too much. The nudity is not shocking, nor is the live sex (I hope they paid the actors above scale!) or the drug use or the pedophilia – it is just numbing and eventually exhausting.  And I don’t want to pick on the actors – God knows they did their best and mostly gave fine performances – but the accents were all over the place! Apparently there was a dialogue coach but I couldn’t tell if people were English, German, African, Indian or just speaking in funny voices. Maybe the bad accents were intentional – part of Bradshaw’s “subversion” of theatrical norms. I really don’t know.

I was so frustrated by this show that I found myself doing that thing that makes me crazy when someone next to me does it at a show – sighing heavily and audibly.  As the evening dragged on I just kept getting more and more numb until I eventually got angry. I’ve been at durational performances that were purposefully incredibly long, challenging the audience to pay attention. I’ve been at live art performances where people cut themselves and otherwise try and shock the audience. I’m not a neophyte or lightweight. But this was a drag.

Normally I don’t diss shows – it’s usually not beneficial to anybody and most of the artists we deal with here at Culturebot are still at a point in their career where they will grow and change and evolve. I guess I’m writing this review because I really, honestly believe that Bradshaw could do so much better than this. He’s funny, he’s smart, he’s a solid writer, not to mention that he’s ambitious and hardworking with a sense of outrage and injustice that could fuel a career of incendiary drama. But in Burning I see none of this, only sprawl and self-indulgence. In Strom Thurmond and in Cleansed he kept his stories focused and taut. He honed in on a few very specific ideas, a few very specific characters, and dug in deep.  As crazy as the situations were in those earlier plays there was at least an air of plausibility, which made it seem real and affecting. Here the goings-on are so implausible – or at least so obvious and simplistic – as to exclude the possibility of real connection to the characters or the stories that they are meant to tell.

I don’t know – this may be Bradshaw’s intent. Maybe there is a meta-theatrical theory in place here, maybe he is exploring these ideas and techniques as a repudiation of theater itself, a repudiation of the bourgeois morality and complacency that is endemic on America’s stages.  Maybe that’s the point  – to take the obvious conventions of upper-middle-class family dramas (see Rabbit Hole, et al) and say “Fuck You!” I’m all for that. But I can’t help but feel that Bradshaw could have done it better. If you want to indict society for its hypocrisy, it takes more than prurience, more than just presenting unpleasant people behaving badly with no moral consequence. It takes focus, discipline and razor-sharp precision.

Remember that old advert for Ginsu knives? “In Japan, the hand can be used like a knife! [Man chops wooden board with hand] But this method doesn’t work with a tomato. [He splats the tomato with a karate chop]”.

In Burning I wish Bradshaw operated with a knife and not a baseball bat.

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