In both the original production (which started at Playwrights Horizons and then moved to the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center) and the substantially different 1996 film, Ron Rifkin played to great acclaim the centering role of Isaac Geldhart. The Manhattan literary scion, who’s built his career on releasing eclectic, socially relevant volumes that capture the Europe eviscerated by World War II, escaped extermination, but at the expense of his family; four decades later, he seems unaccountably willing to sacrifice his own children for sake of his own history-minded ideals.
The first act demonstrates this in a professional setting: the boardroom of his publishing house, where he’s intent on making his next project a six-volume investigation into Nazi medical experiments rather than the populist-minded acidic romance (along the lines of Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis) his business partner and son, Aaron, wants to pursue. In Act II, Isaac’s stolidity reasserts itself and his actions against a visiting social worker who bears her own scars, as he struggles to come to terms with what defines him — and just how likely it is to destroy him.
Isaac is certainly a tour-de-force part, but you’d never know that from the way John Noble plays him. The Australian actor, who’s currently appearing on the TV series Sleepy Hollow, delivers most of his portrayal pulled back, as though to suggest that even Isaac shies from the actions he believes he must take. There’s a definite humanity present, and, especially in the early scenes, you’re aware of the man trying to hold together a union and a psychology he’s all too aware is falling apart.
Part of this is because Noble’s cast mates are downplaying their characters’ passions as well. Hudson Carter does make an intermittently fascinating Aaron, wearing an impeccably ill-fitting suit (the costume designer is Emily Rebholz) that reinforces the man as forever caught between adolescence and manhood, reads as but a surface-level threat to Isaac’s supremacy, which makes his eventual triumphs more jarring but also more destructive. As Sarah, Halley Feiffer (in a role created, and preserved on film, by Sarah Jessica Parker) is energetic, but her overeagerness to display the full mutability of Sarah’s convictions only heightens the latent tension by lessening its later impact.
Daniel Eric Gold, as Martin, is more consistent at showing the debilitating aspects of the conflicts on both sides of the argument, and is as convincing wasting away spiritually in Act I as he is physically after intermission. Charlayne Woodard is all sharp edges and businesslike brusqueness as the social worker, Marge Hackett, in the second act; it’s a cold performance of a role that’s more catalyst than character to begin with, but it does successfully highlight and explain the unusual connection Marge develops with Isaac (which is one of the harder-to-swallow parts of the script as written).
Though Cullman’s production is well paced and features an elegant set by Anna Louizos, which guides us from the confines of Isaac’s office to the Gramercy Park cage of his home three years later, and which is lit by Peter Kaczorowski with a haunting eye toward personal disintegration, it’s Baitz’s writing that remains the true headliner.
I’ve not been much of a fan of Baitz’s recent work, such as The Paris Letter, Chinese Friends, and Other Desert Cities, which have struck me as overwritten and simplistically conceived. But if The Substance of Fire is structurally loose in places, and if much of the dialogue (especially for the children) has a pressed-too-hard quality, the play is a highly perceptive and detailed character study that can’t be ignored.
Isaac is intricately carved as a symbol of a century, a man both beholding to the past and condescending to the future, but who knows — even if he’d rather not admit — that his own era is coming to an end. Baitz reveals each of his facets, pulling away the layers of artifice until you’re left with no question about who and what Isaac is; even if you don’t agree with his point of view or methods, he’s a stirring symbol from a time when such things were misunderstood at best and unwanted at worst.
This Substance of Fire is not as forthright as it could be in depicting each of Isaac’s battles to maintain the life and lessons he’s acquired over the decades, which replaces the play’s astringent urgency with a more resigned — and, at times, less-satisfying — view of the Geldharts’ slow-motion crumbling. In any case, it’s still a powerful portrait of a complex men from a complex time, and a reminder that neither can nor should be forgotten.
The Substance of Fire