NEW YORK — Hopes dashed. Expectations exceeded. The cycle repeats itself again and again over a lifetime of playgoing, as one brings one’s anticipatory notions into the theaters of the world, along with one’s trusty notebook and pen.
It’s one of the things that keep a reviewer forever on the metaphorical edge of his seat: that cliffhanger sense of never knowing what’s about to come at you, whether the show with the reliably funny actors can actually make you laugh (or even feel something), or the drama with the star from another medium can muster the stage muscularity supple enough to support an entire production.
Back-to-back Broadway experiences this weekend reminded this reviewer once again that all presuppositions are shredded the moment the ticket taker hands you back your stub. To wit: the ghastly time to be had, watching the inimitable Nathan Lane get into the cage with the incoherent bear that is “Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus,” and the absolutely delightful one, witnessing Adam Driver, in an utterly captivating turn opposite Keri Russell in Lanford Wilson’s “Burn This.”
To dispense first with the gorier encounter: Lane plays a clown-turned-janitor in Taylor Mac’s comedy, set in the aftermath of the carnage of Shakespeare’s grand-guignol “Titus Andronicus,” that marked its official opening at Broadway’s Booth Theatre on Sunday. Affecting a not-entirely-convincing working-class London accent, Lane gamely tries to make hay of the tedious bluster of Mac’s conceit, about the bloody mess we’re all now in, and how we deal with the aftermath. In concrete terms, this means that the janitor, Gary, joins another “maid,” played by Kristine Nielsen (who replaced the injured Andrea Martin), in a cleanup of the mountain of mutilated bodies that remains after the assorted atrocities of “Titus.” (Julie White is on hand, too, as another minor “Titus” character, a midwife who also survives the bloodbath.)
An attenuated mess of a black comedy, partly in rhymed couplets and lacking even a scabrous sort of gleefulness, strands a theatergoer for 90 minutes in a restless state of ennui. Hints of Beckett and Ionesco materialize here and there, but mostly because the human brain reflexively tries to extract absurdist meaningfulness in any quantity it can. Mac’s own theater brain is prodigious: You have only to have attended the playwright-performer’s epic, day-and-night-long “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music,” or to have seen “Hir,” Mac’s dysfunctional-family satire at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, to know that.
But neither Mac, nor director George C. Wolfe, nor Lane, nor any of the other first-rank talents assembled for this endeavor have managed to figure out how to transform this fanciful bit of artistic cannibalizing into inspirational commercial art. (Think of how memorably Tom Stoppard was able to achieve this with the role-enlargements of another set of minor characters from Shakespeare, in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.”)
To key on Lane’s participation is not to point a finger at him; his desire to press himself into service for Mac’s Broadway debut is a worthy mission. It’s just especially disheartening to see them both go down with this ill-fated vehicle. Dramatic dissonance is one thing. An entire evening of flat notes is another.
That Driver rises so potently to the demands of his assignment carries with it — especially after sitting through “Gary’s” crash and burn — the spirit of dramatic redemption. He’s the impulsive, impossible Pale of Wilson’s 1987 comedy-drama about the sudden death of a charismatic young man and the unlikely romantic entanglement the tragedy engenders. Russell (of deserved “The Americans” fame) portrays a choreographer, Anna, who lived in Lower Manhattan with now-deceased Robbie and another gay roommate, Larry (the always excellent Brandon Uranowitz). In the midst of their collective grief, Robbie’s older brother Pale arrives as a basket case of blustering machismo and as-yet-untapped sensitivity. He is instantly drawn to Anna, and vice versa.
The pitch of director Michael Mayer’s production at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre, where “Burn This” had its official opening last week, is intentionally muted, until Driver’s Pale bursts into Anna and Larry’s apartment, drunk and high. It turns out to be one of the most entertaining entrances of the season. Wilson’s title foreshadows the impact of Pale’s personality: He’s a bonfire, and way more than Russell’s Anna seems able to handle. The slightly discordant element for the audience here is forming the belief that this woman of inordinate self-control would have the patience for such a potential romantic train wreck; Russell never gives the impression that her Anna is capable of letting go to the degree that would seem necessary. (David Furr is also fine, as Anna’s outwardly more appropriate screenwriter boyfriend.)
On this occasion, though, we are all so in the thrall of Driver, who breezes in and out of “Burn This” like a sirocco, that we believe in his ability to turn Anna’s head. He’s such a natural force, in fact, that if you were wearing a hat, you would have to be holding on to it every time he entered.
Gary, A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, by Taylor Mac. Directed by George C. Wolfe. Set, Santo Loquasto; costumes, Ann Roth; lighting, Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer; sound, Dan Moses Schreier. About 90 minutes. $39-$275. At Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St., New York. 212-239-6200. telecharge.com. Burn This, by Lanford Wilson. Directed by Michael Mayer. Set, Derek McLane; costumes, Clint Ramos; lighting, Natasha Katz; sound, David van Tieghem. About 2½ hours. $59-$490. At Hudson Theatre, 141 W. 44th St., New York. 855-801-5876. thehudsonbroadway.com.