There’s been a lot of buzzing on the theater chat sites about the current New Group production “Burning,” running on Theater Row, because of its unusually frank treatment of sex.
Thomas Bradshaw’s play has the heft of an epic — similar in style and content to “Angels in America” — about race, art and the theater world. The story covers multiple decades in the lives of its large cast of characters and is set in both New York City and Berlin.
The nearly three-hour piece is staged with cinematic fluidity by Scott Elliott — the artistic director of The New Group — and the 13-actor cast delivers strong performances, but the show runs into trouble during the frequent and very explicit sex scenes.
Nudity is nothing new in the theater, of course, but Bradshaw and Elliott not only strip the actors, they put them through long scenes meant to depict actual sexual encounters.
It wasn’t the nudity and the grinding away that bothered me, but the placement of good actors in scenes that must be terribly embarrassing to act out night after night.
After working so hard for the first third of “Burning” to convince us that they are Bradshaw’s interesting array of New York actors and painters (and gallery workers and neo-Nazis in Berlin), the performers are brought down to earth by sex scenes that throw us out of the play and make us all too aware of the actors’ bodies and the erotic contortions they are pretending to go through.
Mainstream movies have never figured out a non-porn way to present explicit sex — with the sole exception of John Cameron Mitchell’s “Shortbus” — but it is even more difficult to present the illusion of sexual contact in a stage play where we are much more aware of the reality of the actors in front of us than we are in a movie.
Ellis and Bradshaw are not dealing in sleaze here — the play is full of interesting characters and provocative ideas — but their experiment in presenting sex on stage is a sad failure.
Theoretically, explicit sex should not be the exclusive province of pornographers, but no one (other than Mitchell in his indie movie) seems to be able put it on a stage or in a movie without wrecking the theatrical illusion of the non-sexual scenes.