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An Early History of Fire

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Theo Stockman and Gordon Clapp
Photo by Monique Carboni

Is it a good or a bad thing when those awash in the waves of history seem to be drowning? This is the central question of both An Early History of Fire, the new play by David Rabe that The New Group just opened at the Acorn Theatre, and Jo Bonney's production of it. Although the work captures one of the most turbulent chapters in modern American history—the early 1960s—it's impossible to tell whether the discomfort, confusion, and utter lack of direction emanating from the stage is the fullest embodiment of what Rabe intended or a complete corruption of it.

My guess is a combination of the two. After all, Rabe has written extensively about crippling disaffection, in locales as diverse as the Vietnam War (The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, Sticks and Bones, Streamers) and the Hollywood drug culture (Hurlyburly, which The New Group revived to great success in 2005), so his tackling the country's citizenry barreling out of the 1950s' euphoria and into the world of feminism and incubating Civil Rights would at first blush fit right in. Especially if Rabe focused on the battle between the old world, as represented by both clueless parents and young folks who can't see how their existence is combusting, and the new. Unfortunately, he doesn't build on this concept, and the few glimpses we get of real insight are hopelessly muddied by imprecise, indifferent characterizations.

At the center of, well, everything, is Danny (Theo Stockman). The son of a German immigrant who escaped to America during the war, he's now chafing against the borders of the everyone-knows-almost-everyone Midwest town in which he lives in 1962. He's always defined himself entirely through his interactions with this lifelong friends, Jake and Terry (Dennis Staroselsky and Jonny Orsini), which as of late have mostly involved drinking, petty vandalism, and bragging about their (infrequent) carnal exploits. But a chance run-in at a bus stop led Danny to meet Karen (Claire van der Boom), an extremely attractive, rich, and liberated young woman temporarily home from college.

Theo Stockman and Claire van der Boom
Photo by Monique Carboni

Is this girl ever something else! She speaks (endlessly) of the cosmic advance of humanity, quotes (endlessly) whole pages of The Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey, and rhapsodizes (endlessly) about the wonders of their more enlightened age. Of those, the one that most interests Danny is, shockingly, The Pill. You can have sex without needing a condom? Sign him up! Karen tries, so to speak, but they keep being interrupted by this friend, that disaster, or some other trouble that Danny's Pop (Gordon Clapp) needs addressed immediately. Will no one let these two crazy kids practice their right to free expression? (Probably not, as they can only consummate their love on Danny's hideaway bed in the ground floor living room, which receives more traffic than most Manhattan streets at rush hour.)

The problem with An Early History of Fire is that it never digs deeper than this. That's not to say it doesn't try: The ends of both acts are consumed with Danny, at Karen's intentional or unknowing urging, striving to pursue his dreams of writing and romancing her, and Rabe tries to tie his strife to the roiling struggles slowly engulfing the country as a whole. What's missing, however, is a sharply honed context that might articulate, or even just hint at, the grander implications Danny faces. For all the surface talk about J.D. Salinger and a thriving liberalism, no connections show us what any of this means. And so it means nothing.

What we get instead are half-developed snapshots that fail to coalesce into a full album. Danny complains to the point of rage about subjects as inconsequential as the living room piano (it belonged to Pop's deceased wife, and has become a holy shrine). Pop finds a surrogate son in the simpleminded neighbor, Benji (Devin Ratray), for whom receiving a mail-order chess set is the epitome of achievement. And Danny his friends spend most of their time together either smashed, stoned, or both, rambling about the immortality of Elvis Presley the existential meaning of a frog eating a snake while swilling shot after shot.

If someone made a convincing case for the progress that so enraptures Danny, these individual elements might work. But Rabe paints both sides of the argument as equally shallow and unappealing, and Bonney deepens neither with her cluttered, claustrophobic staging (on Neil Patel's nondescript, two-level house set). Nor do the actors help much: They each seem to have been instructed to embody a specific archetype (the brooding young man, the philosophical girl, the wounded best buddy, and so on) and they do, while providing no additional details about these people. The youth get-togethers are a particular trial, as the performers drone on in near-catatonic monotones, and their acting "drunk" or "high" only encourages them to push their shrill one-dimensionality to still further extremes. (Clapp delivers a marginally more nuanced, and intensely accented version of this.) The only flashes of passion come from Stockman, but they're isolated incidents of fury that suggest the temporary rage of losing your car keys more than they hint at the wounded soul of a brilliant novelist in the making.

It could very well be that Rabe's point is that the social innovations of the 1960s were not all they were cracked up to be, and thus Danny's getting stuck between a depressed past and a disinterested future is an Everyman tragedy from which we're all still working to escape. But color me skeptical: So much stock is placed in Danny's artistic and emotional coming of age, it's almost impossible to believe we're not supposed to take it seriously, and at face value, and seen that way the play is a tough one to swallow. In this representation of An Early History of Fire, Danny's dilemma and our absorption of it don't smolder—they sputter.

An Early History of Fire
Through May 26
Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours 30 minutes, with one intermission
Performances: Mon 7:00 pm, Tues 7:00 pm, Wed 7:00 pm, Th 8:00 pm, Fri 8:00 pm, Sat 2:00 pm, Sat 8:00 pm
Tickets online: Telecharge

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