If the Huntington Theatre Company folks wanted to raise some easy money, they'd start making copies of Michael T. Weiss's TV series ''The Pretender" and sell them in the lobby. Given how people at the opening-night audience were swooning over Weiss, they would probably pay any price for the opportunity to take Weiss home with them, even if only on DVD.
And for good reason. Weiss takes over the Huntington stage to such a degree in Lanford Wilson's ''Burn This" that any time he is not inside the Manhattan loft, you keep waiting for him to burst through to make another pass at Anna, a seemingly self-sufficient dancer. And as unlikely a romantic hero as his loutish character Pale may be, it's more than likely you'll be rooting for him not to leave by play's end.
Wilson has crafted a surprisingly entertaining, if somewhat shopworn, piece out of a play whose title seems to imply a personal or political inferno in the making, particularly when Pale declares that his normal temperature is 110 degrees and that one of the things he likes is to watch whole cities burning. The title refers to any number of things, but mostly to a desire, no matter how damped down, for Anna and Pale to burst through their urban alienation as well as their half-lives of cynicism (he) and comfort (she) and to find some real passion.
How do they get together in the first place? Before the play opens, Pale's brother, also a dancer, had been Anna's roommate until he was killed in a boating accident. He was young, gifted, and gay, which sets up a certain amount of tension, as well as more than a fair amount of humorous banter between Pale and another gay roommate, Larry. The other character, Burton, is a writer in love with Anna, and is someone who would be a thoroughly safe choice for her.
Weiss's character is definitely not safe, though one suspects he's less dangerous than John Malkovich's version in the original production. You can see a lot of Pacino in Weiss's dismissiveness of anything arty as unmanly. And there's a bit of De Niro in his macho yet vulnerable way of not knowing whether to strike out or reach out.
The Huntington has assembled a superb design team under Susan Fenichell's brisk direction. The loft (James Noone), the clothes (Candice Donnelly), and the ambience (aided by Mary Louise Geiger's lighting) all strike just the right effect.
The play's opening, both the dialogue and the acting, seems overly mannered. Anne Torsiglieri, as Anna, seems straining to reach the back row. After a while, though, it becomes more enjoyable to stop wondering about Weiss's influences and to just enjoy his first-rate acting. Torsiglieri, meanwhile, lowers the volume and raises the heat, and the delightful Nat DeWolf, as Larry, keeps his body stiff while gesticulating with his hands, keeps things gay in both senses of the word.Actually, ''Burn This" might be a bit too merry. While Weiss is so good you stop comparing him to other people, Wilson's writing is never so original that you stop wondering where you've seen the story before. There are echoes of Tennessee Williams's ''The Rose Tattoo," especially because of the Huntington's production last May. And you can trace the working-class bad boy meets middle- or upper-class good girl story line from ''Lady Chatterley's Lover" (and before) to ''Cheers" (and after).
These are all good sources, and at his best Wilson does seem to be picking up where Williams left off. But for the most part, for all of Wilson's literary ambitions, it's not clear that ''Burn This" is much more than a great, extended episode of ''Cheers" -- with Sam in Diane's territory rather than vice-versa. The one-liners would not have been out of place on that show; nor does Wilson go much beyond the premise, despite the blue notes of alienation and the Mamet-like use of certain words.
This is live theater, though, and the sparks that fly between Weiss and Torsiglieri are not easily replicated on film. You keep rooting for these characters to go for the gold. If Wilson's play only merits a silver, that's not too bad, either.
Ed Siegel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.