With its enviable view of the downtown skyline, soaring ceilings, and vast living room, the lower Manhattan apartment of Anna and Larry is the sort of space of which most New Yorkers can only dream. But closer inspection reveals plywood on the kitchen floor and in the bedrooms, walls that haven’t seen a paintbrush in decades, and hardly any furniture. The full picture snaps into focus: This is a true artist’s loft.
Of course, this particular apartment is a set, and Anna and Larry, played by Keri Russell and Brandon Uranowitz, are only characters in the new staging of Lanford Wilson’s Broadway play Burn This, costarring Adam Driver, who plays Pale, a restaurateur who falls for Anna. The pitch-perfect scenery is the work of Derek McLane, a Tony Award–winning set designer who culled his own experience living in a similar loft in 1980s Long Island City, Queens, for the masterful mise-en-scène. “There was no heat after 4:00 P.M. or on the weekends because they only heated it for the businesses,” McLane recalls of his first New York home. “But it was an amazing place to live. That’s an element of New York that’s gone now, and so revisiting that in this play is wonderful.”
Burn This takes place in 1987, but there’s a timeless feel to the apartment, especially the views of Manhattan outside the nearly floor-to-ceiling bank of windows. McLane created the impressive vista by layering four successive rows of buildings, based on actual views from similar loft apartments. “I did a lot of foreshortening there to try to make it feel like there’s a lot more space than there really is,” he says. “It’s a shallow theater, so all of that cityscape fits into about five or six feet of depth.” The effect is furthered by his use of color: “The ones that are furthest away are painted paler; they have that faded quality that things get when they’re in the distance,” he says. And, as the play takes place during both night and day, each building’s windows are actually individually wired for light. “When it’s early evening, a lot of them are on. And then, really late at night, there’s only two or three, because most people have gone to bed. So it’s telling its own little story out there,” he says.
McLane also deployed crafty light technique to the main furniture piece onstage: a red brocade vintage sofa. The designer first completely reupholstered the couch in a pale red fabric: “Because the actors have to spend so much time sitting on it, we didn’t want them to sit on something old,” he explains. Then the corners and crevices were dyed a deeper red so “it looked like it was a dark red sofa that had faded to this other color,” he says of the process.
While other set pieces are a mix of vintage and new (make note of the authentic stove, which is actually used to boil water for tea onstage), there is one element that McLane lifted directly from his early New York life. “There are a couple of clip lights on the walls. That’s a detail leftover from my youth,” he says. “That was all I could afford!”