No one knows you quite the way a sibling does. Seeing you grow up, watching how you interact with your parents, and learning every possible button to push to make you do exactly what they want — these are cherished qualities in a brother or sister. They’re also central to Michael Parsons play Fire Dance, which is now playing at the 64E4 Mainstage as part of the New York International Fringe Festival. In it, two adult brothers who are brought together because of tragedy come to finally realize just how much the other has to offer — for good and ill. And for a significant chunk of the play’s 85-minute running time, the story packs some genuine, well, heat.
Hotshot lawyer Sean (Alexander J. Morgan) reconnects with his brother, Nicky (Sam Tilles), after their mother’s death, and Sean, captivated by the close-knit neighborhood he abandoned years earlier (and an attractive woman named Janice he knew vaguely from back in the day) decides to move back in with Nicky. As the two struggle to come to terms with each other — Sean has a new contract job hunting down high-profile mob targets, Nicky is a fireman (like his father) coping with a serial arsonist who’s terrorizing the NYFD — Parsons finds plenty of ways to show the divides and the bonds between the two, and exploit them for maximum dramatic impact.
Their cool intimacy reveals some natural sticking points. Sean is the monogamous type, and stuck on Janice; Nicky’s a love-her-and-leave-her kind of guy. Sean was close to Mom; Nicky was tight with Dad. Sean’s a devout, practicing Catholic who prays the rosary every time Nicky gets sent out on a call — but Nicky isn’t sure there’s anything above and beyond the next fire. Sean lives perilously close to his feelings, but whether at Mom’s or Dad’s death or at any other time, Nicky has never been able to shed a single tear. And as the brothers explore, occasionally delight in, and more often chafe against their relationship, we get a glimpse at the inner workings (and sometimes failings) of a family that seem unusually powerful and recognizable.
Jacob Titus’s direction is stark, decisive, and frequently brutal, as though everything occurs within a half-drunken haze. And he emphasizes and enhances every second of the actors’ superb chemistry. Morgan deftly depicts a man who’s trying to hide his worse self and Tilles someone who’s learned to embrace it — while letting you see they’re essentially the same person underneath. They sound as though they’re always speaking on the same frequency — Morgan’s Sean working mightily to hide the accent that Tilles’s Nicky openly embraces — and they look sufficiently similar that you don’t have to squint to see their resemblance. In the scenes where they fight (of which there are quite a few) as well as those where they operate on friendlier terms, there’s never a doubt that this pair is joined at the blood.
In the end, unfortunately, this matters little. Though Parsons devotes his first two-thirds to a compelling dual-edged character study, the last half-hour collapses the enterprise altogether as he tries to explore deeper areas of both the brothers and their story. Parsons digs a bit too far into True West territory, and isn’t able to justify all the twists he imposes. This is particularly true with regards to Janice, which presents another problem. She’s a key supporting figure, and becomes flat-out vital in the last few scenes, but never appears onstage; this forces Morgan and Tilles to act around her as she moves the story and deliver lengthy speeches to her offstage — two things that are about as unconvincing and unsatisfying as theatre gets.
Worse, some head-shakingly improbable plot developments in the last couple of scenes stretch credulity well beyond the snapping point. It’s clear throughout that certain specific stresses between Sean and Nicky need to be addressed, but Parsons makes some enormous leaps of logic and common sense in order to do so that betray the goodwill — to say nothing of the time and emotional investment — he’s spent so much time building up. Ultimately, the developments are significant and damaging enough to leave you not only not liking, but also not accepting, either brother.
Until then, however, they course with a reality that defines Fire Dance as a unique piece with a unique perspective on just how far we can — or should — go for those we’re closest to. While Parsons focuses on that, he has a winner on his hands. But smothering the coals just before the flames reach their full, mesmerizing height keeps his work from being as warming, searing, and dazzling as it otherwise seems destined to be.