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Why Michael Mayer Revisited His Youth for 'Burn This'

By: Gerard Raymond
Date: Apr 16, 2019

The Tony winner talks about directing the starry Broadway revival of Lanford Wilson's drama


If you were taking bets on whether the tempestuous, mismatched lovers at the center of Lanford Wilson's Burn This would continue their relationship after the curtain falls, cynics would probably say no. That must make Michael Mayer, the director of the current Broadway revival of the 1987 drama, a romantic, because he believes loutish restaurant manager Pale (Oscar nominee Adam Driver) and aspiring choreographer Anna (Emmy nominee Keri Russell) have a future.

"On the surface, they are both devastated by the loss of the same person," says Mayer, referencing the dead dancer who unwittingly brings these strangers together. "But I think what connects them is their passion and their ability to love with such complete devotion and fervor. And there is an animal attraction as well. I like to think that, maybe by the end of the play, they might make it as a couple."

A Tony winner for helming the original Broadway production of Spring Awakening, the veteran director is known for his versatility. He's equally adept at plays and musicals, Off-Broadway and on as illustrated by the other Main Stem production he staged this season: the exuberant Go-Go's jukebox tuner Head Over Heels. In between, he found time to direct the North American premiere of Marnie and a new production of the Verdi classic La Traviata, both at the Metropolitan Opera. "Moving from one thing to another like this has always appealed to me," he says. "It not only involves completely different parts of my brain, but different parts of my heart as well. You connect to each work in a different way -- and it's not just the different stories or the thematic meat of each project, but also the tools that the writers use to tell those stories."

Mayer moved to New York City at age 20 to study acting at New York University Tisch School of the Arts. It was 1980, the same year Wilson won his Pulitzer Prize for Talley's Folly, and Mayer recalls him being touted as one of the great living American playwrights. "He was a little bit in the tradition of Tennessee Williams in terms of a kind of poetic realism," Mayer says. "I remember it was such a big deal when Burn This came out because it had been awhile since he had written something, and this was so different from his other work. It still has his traits -- his characters all have these amazing arias -- but it was remarkable in that it is a love story born out of this seemingly bottomless pit of pain."

Even though it doesn't directly address the health crisis that was decimating New York's artistic community when it premiered, Burn This was seen by many as Wilson's AIDS play. "It very sensitively and truthfully examines what it is to just deal with the loss, which I know from my own experience of being a gay artist in the '80s," says Mayer. "All these people -- some of them I knew personally, some of them I just knew from their work -- suddenly you'd get a phone call that someone was gone. I remember the feelings of anger and how absurd it was that these young people had just vanished off the face of the earth. "

Both Mayer and Wilson, who was also gay, survived that era; the playwright ultimately passed away in 2011 at age 73. One of Mayer's goals with Burn This is to resurrect the New York he knew in his youth. "It is something I relate to, so it was important to me to be true to that," he says. "This really is a period piece -- the mid-'80s were such a terrible time for so many reasons. Yet here we are in the middle of this nightmare that is all around us politically. What I'd love -- which is also what you want from all good art -- is that today's audiences experiencing this play may start thinking differently about their own lives. Maybe they'll start to ask: What do I want so badly? What am I so afraid of losing that I would risk everything for it? Where is that passion? I think that's the gauntlet that Lanford throws down to us."


Gerard Raymond is an arts journalist based in New York City.

Keri Russell and Adam Driver. Photo by Danielle Levitt.

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Gerard Raymond is a Sri Lanka-born arts journalist based in New York City who's a member of the Drama Desk and the American Theatre Critics Association.