Sunday, December 11, 2011

Thomas Bradshaw's play "Burning"

In a Slate interview about the New Group production of his play Burnings at Theater Row, directed by Scott Elliott, Thomas Bradshaw explains that his characters are so different from mainstream theater's because they say what is on their mind and they do what they want, without hypocrisy or self-deception. "Where my work departs from traditional drama," he says, "is the fact that my characters pretty much have no self-awareness and are almost acting on pure id. There is never any subtext in my plays." It is a bold artistic aim that is mostly but unevenly achieved in Burnings.

Two partnered white men adopt a 14-year-old white boy for help around the house and for their sexual satisfaction. A successful black painter commits adultery against his white wife by visiting a black prostitute. A white brother-and-sister pair swear to uphold their deceased parents' neo-Nazist beliefs. All of them say what they want, and pretty much do what they want in the next scene. But confusing the stated artistic goal is a half-hearted, unconvincing attempt to humanize a few of the characters, to give them egos and superegos, in addition to their ids. And so the neo-Nazi brother Michael (Drew Hildebrand) is shown to look after his disabled sister Katrin (Reyna de Courcy) with exemplary brotherly care, going so far as to masturbate her when she asks for sexual release while he is bathing her. The scene is extraordinarily tender and moving but, despite its incestuous overtones, is not the work of pure id.

Neither is the relationship between Chris the 14-year-old (Evan Johnson) and his playwriting boyfriend Donald (Adam Trese). Donald gives up the production of his play by taking Chris away from the household of the aging theater gods Jack (Andrew Garman) and Simon (Danny Mastrogiorgio). Chris, who reads Marquis de Sade on following one's natural desires, stays instead with Donald when the latter dies of AIDs.  Also unlike id-ish behavior is the understanding forged between the grown-up Chris (Hunter Foster) and the black adolescent Franklin (a terrific Vladimir Versailles) who bond over the fact that both their mothers died of a drug overdose.

By injecting a shot of psychological realism into some of his characters, but not others, Bradshaw confuses his avowed method and goal, and raises questions about his objectivity. By objectivity, I mean a writer's ability to view every part of his work with equal distance, like in Pinter. Instead of describing formally the workings of id, the play chooses sides in bad faith. All playwrights choose sides, but what makes it vexing in this case is Bradshaw's disingenuous claim to present action without judgment. Any arrangement of action must involve judgment, if only to decide on priority. All texts involve subtexts. In claiming that "there is never any subtext in my plays," Bradshaw is being insufficiently postmodernist.

One such subtext comes at the very end of the 2-hour-45-minute play. After Peter the successful black painter (Stephen Tyrone Williams) had sex with a Sudanese prostitute Gretchen (Barrett Doss), he had an epiphany that he was still deeply in love with his dead cousin Lucy, whom he glimpsed at the age of 9 having sex with her boyfriend. After he was killed by the skinheads, his wife Josephine (Larisa Polonsky) mixes his ashes with Lucy's ashes so that they can be together in death, if not in life. Apart from the fact that it is hard to imagine a betrayed wife doing that (and the forgiveness that Josephine dispenses to everyone automatically does not help matters), it is also striking that no one thinks to ask whether Lucy would want her ashes mixed with Peter's. She may be his one true love, but there is no clear indication in the play that he is hers. The fantasy here is clearly masculinist. The absent dead, as happens often in a literary work, becomes the text's unconscious.

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