Thursday, March 28, 2019

The Dead Gay Man: Burn This and Tom at the Farm

Choose your beefy, brooding blue-collar man
grieving his dead gay brother carefully.

When news broke that tickets were on sale for Burn This, a revival of a sexy, intense 1987 Lanford Wilson play starring Adam Driver and Keri Russell, I felt deeply envious of people who lived in or near New York. Those lucky people would be able to see film director favorite Adam Driver on the stage, where he started racking up accolades the moment he graduated from Julliard in 2009! They would get a preview of the chemistry between Kylo Ren and the new character played by Russell in Star Wars: Episode IX! Why couldn't I be like those fortunate ones? Then I remembered that planes were a thing.

So a month later I was in New York, in the Hudson Theatre, terrified that at the last minute they would announce that Driver had the flu or something. But that didn't happen, and the show began! Then a different thought came to mind. "Wait a second. Is this Tom at the Farm?"

A dream come true. That carpet, though.

Tom at the Farm, or Tom à la ferme, is a 2011 play by Quebecois playwright Michel Marc Bouchard. I was introduced to the play back in 2015 through Xavier Dolan's film adaptation. I eventually read the English translation, but found that it's a work where staging is really integral. (For this post, I'll mostly be going off of the Dolan film.)

I'm not suggesting plagiarism or anything like that. But let me explain: 

When Burn This starts, Robbie, the dance partner of Manhattan woman Anna, has died in an accident along with his boyfriend. Anna relates how she showed up at his funeral to discover her friend's conservative New Jersey family didn't know he was gay. They assumed/insisted that she was his girlfriend, and she found herself roped into spending the night at the family's house. Soon, she finds herself in a passionate yet ill-advised relationship with her deceased friend's volatile older brother, Pale, who knows his brother was gay and looks eerily like him.

When Tom at the Farm starts, Guy, the boyfriend of Montreal man Tom, has died in an accident. Tom shows up at the funeral to discover his boyfriend's conservative rural Quebec family didn't know he was gay. They assume/insist that a female co-worker, Sarah, was his girlfriend, and Tom finds himself roped into getting Sarah to come to the family's house. Tom finds himself in a passionate yet ill-advised relationship with his deceased boyfriend's volatile older brother, Francis, who knows his brother was gay and looks eerily like him.

Both stories also have creepy dying animals (butterflies, cows), gay men in advertising, dancing, a hit 1980s song ("I'm on Fire" for Burn This, "Sunglasses at Night" for the Tom at the Farm movie), and a very important handwritten note on a scrap of paper.

Pierre-Ives Cardinal (Francis) and Xavier Dolan (Tom) in Tom at the Farm

What interests me about the parallels is that Tom at the Farm feels like it took the basic situation (cosmopolitan gay man dies, more "traditional" family is in denial about his sexuality, woman pressured into posing as his girlfriend) and re-centered on the gay characters, even bringing one back from the dead.

Gay characters in Burn This are important, but on the periphery from the main action. When the play starts, boyfriends Robbie and Dominic are already dead and buried. Larry, roommate to Anna and the late Robbie, is an important and scene-stealing character, but very much of the "sassy gay friend" trope. That he doesn't come off as too cartoonish in 2019 is due to Wilson's thoughtful writing and Brandon Uranowitz's performance. (In an interview, Uranowitz describes the part as "a dream role" and not in need of "modernizing.") Still, it's hard not to notice that Larry's function is mostly to provide humor and assist the heterosexual romance between Anna and Pale.

In Tom at the Farm (at least in the movie version), the analogous Pale/Anna tryst between Francis, the dead man's older brother, and Sarah, the co-worker who has to pretend to be the dead man's girlfriend, does occur, but as a quickie in a truck. The main focus is on the relationship between Tom and Francis. And whoo boy, what a relationship it is. The Anna and Pale relationship is a series of unstable, drunken, grief-fueled hookups, but is still miles healthier than what Tom and Francis get up to. While Pale, a sleep-deprived coke addict, is unpredictable and aggressive, Francis is downright sadistic and dangerous. No one is threatened with being thrown in a pit of dead cows in Burn This!

The Hudson Theatre

I don't know if Bouchard and/or Dolan were inspired by Wilson's play at all (I couldn't find any reference to this online), but the similarities in the stories at their bases are striking. Even if there is no connection, the contrasts between the two are so fascinating to me because they show how different storytellers can take one scenario and change it so much depending on whom they decide the protagonist is, which facet they choose to look through.

Burn This was 100% worth the weekend trip across the country. Seeing Driver act onstage was just as electrifying as I'd hoped. I was expecting his vulnerability and energy, but was surprised by his flawless comedic timing (maybe because I've never watched Girls?). The aforementioned Uranowitz was hilarious. David Furr, as Anna's wealthy screenwriter boyfriend Burton, brought an approachable humanity to the role. Russell didn't seem as natural onstage as her three Broadway-vet castmates, but she was still deeply affecting and has time to get more comfortable (the show is still in previews and officially opens April 16, running through July 14). 

Image info:
Header image: promo image for Burn This, screenshot of Tom at the Farm
Pic of program: mine
Tom at the Farm screenshot
Pic of Hudson Theatre: mine