If Noel Coward had tried to write a Wagnerian opera, it might have come out something like Lanford Wilson's "Burn This," a powerful, dazzlingly comic play about love, art and social disintegration in a SoHo loft.
The play focuses on a young woman who shares the loft with two gay men, one of whom has just died in a freak accident. He was a fellow dancer and she must carry on his work. She is being courted by a priggish, self-involved screenwriter.
Into this brittle, artsy atmosphere comes the dead man's brother, a demonic brute of a man. He brings sizzling, uncomplicated lust into this sexual Limbo.
Whether or not one totally accepts Wilson's depiction of love by spontaneous combustion, he has created an uproarious evening. The characters wit is great (witness the screenwriter's remark, "Movies are some banker's speculation about how American teenagers want to see themselves that week"). So is their self-perception.
What makes the play persuasive are the sensational performances, particularly that of Joan Allen. Allen is quite literally bewitching as she transforms herself from a woman whose ascetic dancer's body is limp from grief into a creature of awakened sensuality with effortless, total conviction. She is Chicago's greatest gift to us.
John Malkovich is similarly overpowering as her lover. The part is almost a series of jazz riffs for Malkovich's repertory of brutish behavior. If there is a weakness, it is in his vocal rhythms, first arresting, then repetitive. But they detract only marginally from an explosive performance.
Lou Liberatore is marvelous as the gay roommate, a perfect embodiment for Wilson's wit. Jonathan Hogan is forceful as the unsympathetic writer.
Under Marshall Mason's direction the play flows beautifully. John Lee Beatty's set elegantly reinforces its aspirations to 19th century grandeur.
Broadway has finally gotten masterfully into its stride with a new American play - "Burn This" - boasting a stellar performance by John Malkovich, vivid and powerful enough to provide the stuff of Broadway legend.
Lanford Wilson is the kind of playwright who seems only happy if he is living - professionally as it were - in a duplex. He has a split-level sort of personality. He is also a consummate craftsman, who seems to enjoy the whole business of writing plays.
His newest, "Burn This," which opened at the Plymouth Theater last night is, or should be, custom-built to be a Broadway hit. On the surface it is a stunning, imaginative variation on Broadway's favorite theme of boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy...well, I guess that that, traditionally, is always up for grabs.
Imagine a chic and ironic Noel Coward comedy - something like "Design for Living" or even, at a push, "Private Lives" - set today or even tomorrow in a converted SoHo loft.
Now imagine the dialog being gone-over by David Mamet in a peculiarly foul-mouthed mood, and with a stolidly light-hearted determination to shock the shockable minority for the express pleasure of the unshockable majority.
And you have a fair surface impression of the dazzling, if slightly over-long and diffuse, "Burn This."
But this modern, cynical romance is only one level of the play - it has a deeper intent. Unfortunately the deeper it goes the less successful it becomes. There is not less in this than meets the eye, but there is certainly no more.
A woman, Anna Mann, is a modern-dancer, who lives in her loft with a couple of gays, Robbie, supposedly one of the great dancers of his time, and Larry, a young man in advertising.
At the beginning of the play, Anna is bereft, for she has just returned from Robbie's funeral - he has been killed in a boating accident. Neither Larry nor her lover, a rich, priggish, spoiled kid who has gotten even richer writing sci-fi scripts for Hollywood, can console her.
Anna is at one of those turning points that dancers usually have in the creative minds of non-dancers. She is to abandon dancing - she is getting too old in the joints - and become a choreographer! And Robbie - himself a dancing trailblazer - was to have lit the way for her.
Enter, late one night, an explosive young man, screaming obscenities at the difficulty of parking his car, who turns out to be Robbie's elder brother, Pale, and has come, somewhat belatedly, to collect his dead brother's few effects.
Pale (the incredible and dynamic Malkovich, of course) is a wild and crazy guy, with a face like a death's-head and flowing black hair in a pageboy bob. He not only looks pale, he even looks beyond it.
When we find that Pale pakcs a loaded revolver, and talks so tough that the air around him shivers, it seems that he could be a hit man from the Mafia.
But he isn't - as we later find out he is merely a manager from a "celebrity restaurant" in New Jersey, and a gourmet cook and master tea-maker at that.
But by this time he has had his frantic way with Anna, and Anna, without quite realizing the depth of her lust, is in love.
Now for the subtext. And all the references to burning - for the burning is a cross link to the burning fires of creativity and the burning of bridges.
Anna has previously not lived enough to be an artist. Now she can go back into her dance studio and work - and in a 12-minute sextet put the emphasis on the sex, and create a breakthrough masterpiece depicting, in a subtle way, Pale and herself dancing.
The trouble with all this is that I suspect that Wilson hasn't known that many modern-dancers, which makes me wonder how many New Jersey restaurant managers he counts among his research acquaintanceship.
There is a certain slickness here that jars with the play's apparent seriousness. The rich and educated sci-fi kid, for example, has never heard of "The Flying Dutchman," whereas the blue-collar Pale sings Shostakovich in the shower!
Too much, at the level Wilson wants to be accepted, doesn't ring true. This is not nearly such an interesting, or serious play, as Wilson's previous financial failure on Broadway with an odd-couple boy-girl theme, his 20-year-old drama of miscegenation, "The Gingham Dog."
This time Wilson is taking no real chances with his Broadway audience - everything ends up as cosy as an electric fire.
As always, Wilson has been lucky in his collaborators, but with such consistency, luck has nothing to do with it.
Marshall Mason has staged the play with total authority, and the setting by John Lee Beatty, complete with a Manhattan skyline luminously lit by Dennis Parichy, is a joy in itself.
The acting is as near perfect as any playwright could have the nerve to hope.
Malkovich's Pale, a nervous coil of unleashed violence with a surprising gentle core, is absolutely marvelous - it is one of those performances that should have people storming box-offices.
And the rest are never far behind - with Joan Allen crisply puzzled as an artist, and woman, on the boil, Lou Liberatore as her fast-joking gay friend, and Jonathan Hogan as her stuffy, karate kid of a lover, are all excellent.
"Burn This" is not incandescent art, but it is certainly a superior, beautiful asbestos-lined and fireproof piece of theater. Take it not too seriously, and enjoy.
From his first New York appearance - as the mangy outlaw brother in Sam Shepard's ''True West'' - John Malkovich has been a combustive figure on stage, threatening to incinerate everyone and everything around him with his throbbing vocal riffs, bruiser's posture and savage, unfocused eyes. If you're going to write a play called ''Burn This,'' as Lanford Wilson now has, Mr. Malkovich is surely the man to fan its flames.
The actor's performance at the Plymouth delivers the firepower, all right. Playing a hopped-up interloper known as Pale, Mr. Malkovich enters a downtown loft by nearly beating down the door, then shouts out a free-associative tirade cursing the ills of urban life, then pounds the walls and furniture in a scatological fit of rage. All the while he is equally busy tossing a mane of long dark hair, hoping to arouse the carnal interest of the very pretty young woman who finds herself the surprise recipient of Pale's middle-of-the-night invasion.
The woman, a modern dancer named Anna (Joan Allen), is terrified and titillated. The audience, by contrast, is more inclined to laugh. If there's a difference between the performer who rode to Off Broadway from Chicago in ''True West'' and the one who now stars uptown, it's a small but significant degree of self-consciousness. In ''Burn This,'' Mr. Malkovich makes a show of his dangerousness - an extended freak show that splits off from the play proper and is aimed as much at the balcony as it is at Ms. Allen.
He is still riveting and frequently funny: let someone ask Pale to explain his bandaged hand and a crazed bark of ''No!'' silences that question and a half dozen to come. Yet the harrowing rage that tore up the apartment in ''True West'' and mauled the pious self-image of Dustin Hoffman's Willy Loman in ''Death of a Salesman'' seems sweetened here. With his dems-and-dose accent, unexpected bursts of sensitivity and slightly androgynous sexuality, Mr. Malkovich's Pale is a latter-day Stanley Kowalski, a blue-collar animal out to claw through the genteel veneer of the downtown esthete Anna. But he's a domesticated Stanley: he goes for the gag before he goes for Anna's throat, and the gun he carries is only for dramatic effect.
Even so, his performance yanks us through this always intriguing, finally undernourishing three-hour play. A tamed Stanley may in fact be just what Mr. Wilson wants. Though often more muddled than pointed, ''Burn This'' really does suggest a cuter, softened ''Streetcar Named Desire'' for the yuppie 1980's, down to its Windham Hill-style jazz-fusion score and its upbeat ending. Despite much onstage brawling and crying and pre-coital theatrics, Anna and Pale don't fight to the death, as Stanley and Blanche did, so much as slowly settle down to make the choices facing those New York couples who inhabit the slick magazines. What begins as a go-for-broke sexual struggle trails off into sentimental conflicts between love and career, unbridled passion and intellectual detachment, a loft life style and the biological clock.
Although the payoff of ''Burn This'' is perilously slight, the play initially promises the abundance one anticipates from Mr. Wilson, as wise and accomplished a playwright as we have. The evening opens within the shadows of a sudden, accidental death: Robbie, a brilliant young dancer who was one of Anna's roommates and her artistic inspiration, has died with his lover in a boating accident. Anna mourns Robbie, a homosexual, as if he had been her own lover. The mysterious arrival of Pale, Robbie's heterosexual and somewhat homophobic brother, as a sexually fulfilling substitute for the dead man promises to explode that fascinating choreography of love, gender and sex.
Those issues are largely ignored as Mr. Wilson propels the Anna-Pale relationship mechanically, according to the predictable conventions of breezy romantic comedies. Anna bounces didactically back and forth between the feral, brutish, erotically charged Pale, an uninhibited force of nature who incongruously turns out to be a Montclair, N.J., restaurant manager, and her all too antithetical suitor - a wealthy, tony screenwriter named Burton. (Jonathan Hogan finds charm in Burton, the eternal Ralph Bellamy role, in spite of a Laura Crow sportswear wardrobe that has Bourgeois Jerk plastered all over it). In Act II, Anna and Pale spat and reconcile for no reason other than the requirements of sustaining a love triangle plot. One yearns for the depth of Mr. Wilson's ''Talley's Folly,'' in which another romantic odd couple had to sit tight for 90 minutes to have everything out.
As one expects from this writer, ''Burn This'' has a sociopolitical component, too: both Pale (in Act I) and Anna (in Act II) deliver speeches lamenting an alienating modern civilization in which people must fight to preserve their humanity in the face of daily indignities, from battling for parking spaces to real or figurative rapes. But this apocalyptic urban backdrop doesn't unfurl naturally, as it did in Mr. Wilson's ''Balm in Gilead'' (as directed by Mr. Malkovich); instead, the message seems superimposed, much like the nuclear disaster in ''Angels Fall,'' to lend weight to the thinner characters. Anna is particularly emaciated. However frequently she may sob out of grief or anger, she defies even the talented Ms. Allen's efforts to convey some emotional rationale for her whimsical shifts between Pale and Burton. Perhaps if there were a hot sexual charge between her and Mr. Malkovich, which there is not, such logic wouldn't matter.
Arguably the play's most telling character is the one least integral to its story: an unattached homosexual advertising man named Larry who is Anna's remaining roommate. Winningly played by Lou Liberatore with a warmth and wry intelligence that keep bitchiness at bay, Larry fields Mr. Wilson's funniest lines, on subjects as varied as Detroit, gay New Year's Eve parties and corporate Christmas cards. Larry is a third wheel, perennial bachelor and latent cupid - the Tony Randall role - and yet there seems much more to him than just that. In a play in which no pair of lovers - whether homosexual or heterosexual - has ever lived together, Larry's voyeurism and disconnectedness seem to say more about the playwright's feelings of loss and longing than the showier romance at center stage.
''Burn This'' was directed by Mr. Wilson's longtime creative partner, Marshall W. Mason. As usual, Mr. Mason's staging is fluid and the John Lee Beatty set (diaphanously lighted by Dennis Parichy) is handsome, but one wonders why the director didn't exert a stronger editorial hand. The play's length seems to advertise its self-indulgent, excisable blind alleys; one is constantly struck by small details that are fudged for plot contrivance's sake, from the inconsistent use of the loft's front-door buzzer to Larry's convenient firsthand familiarity with Pale's Montclair restaurant.
Mr. Mason has been much more attentive to the considerable ''burn'' imagery in the text: both acts open with the striking of matches, and the final curtain rings down on the dying embers of a torched confidential note. Yet the promised illumination of torrid intimacies and larger-than-life passions never quite emerges, either in the text or the performance. One feels so much invigorating heat at ''Burn This'' that it's all the more frustrating to be left with so little light.