NEW YORK -- As you might suspect from the title, "Burn This," Lanford Wilson's latest drama and one of the rare home-grown plays to open on Broadway this season, is concerned with conflagrations. Even before the lights go up on the stage of the Plymouth Theatre, a flame leaps out of the darkness. It turns out only that a cigarette is being lit by Wilson's grieving heroine, an aspiring New York choreographer called Anna Mann. But you might say the evening's agenda has been symbolically announced.

Wilson's subject is the spontaneous combustion that erupts between two people who have no business trafficking with one another, know it and yet can't resist the emotional and sexual attraction pulling them together. It's what happened to Stanley Kowalski and Blanche DuBois in "A Streetcar Named Desire," which "Burn This" invariably brings to mind.

Granted, Wilson stops short of the devastation chronicled by Tennessee Williams. He may even have wanted to write a romantic comedy for our splintered times. "Burn This" ends with Anna and the lout -- Pale by name -- surrendering to a relationship that she claims she doesn't want and he says he didn't expect. What comes next, I daresay, is anyone's guess.

"BurnThis" has been forged out of anguish and alienation. But it also has its share of quips and one-liners ("What's the difference between a {champagne} flute and a glass?" "About $50") that you'd expect to find in froth like "Same Time, Next Year." If it cuts too deep to pass for breezy entertainment, it never cuts deep enough to qualify as probing drama. The satisfying wholeness of such Wilson plays as "Talley's Folly," "Fifth of July" or even the early "Balm in Gilead" seems to have eluded the author this time.

The play, in fact, is probably best considered as an opportunity to watch John Malkovich, one of the best actors of his generation, give another of his slam-bang, over-the-top performances. As Pale, he is an odd, irrational creature, hopped-up on cocaine and ready to demolish anyone who steps on his lizard-skin shoes or tries to steal his parking space. He works as the manager of a restaurant in Montclair, N.J. But looking at his black shoulder-length hair and the glassy fanaticism of his eyes, you could easily mistake him for a demonic tent show evangelical.

Anna has been sharing her loft in lower Manhattan with Pale's brother, a gay dancer, who has just died in a boating accident. Now Pale has come to collect his sibling's belongings. Lurching onto the premises like a drunken bull, snorting expletives, he makes an astonishing entrance. "My normal temperature is like 110," he says, and you believe him. He's burning up.

What is harder to understand over the long haul is why Anna -- a creature of finer sensibility, keener ambition and sharper intelligence -- is drawn to him. She has a suitor, an aspiring screen writer (Jonathan Hogan), to offer her wealth, encouragement and understanding. Wisecracking companionship is provided by another roommate (Lou Liberatore), a gay advertising executive. Pale -- unhappily married -- is as welcome in this world as a tornado and just as disruptive.

Yet Anna suffers his late-night intrusions and lets herself be coaxed into bed, only to swear afterward to put him out of her life. The vow lasts until his next nocturnal break-in. Wilson is not good about motivating her flip-flopping behavior.

The answers, such as they are, lie rather in Malkovich's presence as an actor. He has the tinder-box explosiveness of a young Brando and a similar ability to suggest that it stems from a deeply wounded sensibility. Alluringly dangerous and at the same time retaining a boyish helplessness, he is a threat, pleading to be defused. Presumably, the vigor of his temperament and not just his sexual prowess is what stirs Anna from the ashes of her mourning.

But I'm speculating. The point is, the actor has to plug up some gaping holes in the script. Anna is a distinctly unfocused creation, and the dryness of Joan Allen's performance doesn't help. She shows us a woman of unsettled mind, perhaps, but contributes precious little body heat to the mounting bonfire.

Liberatore, as her confidant, gets Wilson's snappiest lines. Raging against the indignities of modern life -- plane travel, gay New Year's Eve parties and Detroit, which he terms "the South's revenge" -- he is an engaging counterpoint to Malkovich's unbridled, and often inchoate fury. John Lee Beatty has designed the elegantly minimalist loft with a spanking view of the urban skyline. And Peter Kater has composed the thumping jazz music intended to carry the pulsations of the drama over into the scene breaks.

That would be appropriate if "Burn This" had a stronger heartbeat. But Malkovich ends up driving the evening forward pretty much all by himself. You're never sure whether he's going to pass out or hurl a chair through the window. At his drunken, disreputable worse, he suddenly finds it imperative to have a cup of "orange pekoe tea." He's made up of startling zigzags that defy rational analysis, but sure make for dramatic fireworks.

Whenever he's offstage, I fear, "Burn This" flickers fitfully and threatens to go out.

Burn This, by Lanford Wilson. Directed by Marshall W. Mason. Set, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Laura Crow; lighting, Dennis Parichy; original music, Peter Kater. With John Malkovich, Joan Allen, Jonathan Hogan, Lou Liberatore. At the Plymouth Theatre in New York.