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A Small Fire

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Celia Keenan-Bolger and Michele Pawk.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Sometimes symbolism instantly sparkles, and sometimes it needs to percolate—it can one of the hardest jobs of an enterprising playwright to decide when which applies. Playwright Adam Bock has had unusual success in his prior determinations with works like Swimming in the Shallows (concerning a man in love with a shark), The Receptionist (about a secretary manning the phones at the front lines of totalitarianism), and The Drunken City (in which an alcohol-fueled evening propels all manner of life-changing events). Bock's latest play, A Small Fire, which just opened at Playwrights Horizons, demonstrates that even when at his most realistic and affecting, his judgment is not always sure.

Bock has unquestionably injected this play with some of his strongest writing, which in director Trip Cullman's crystalline production powerfully explores how our senses shape our view of the world and ourselves. Establishing Emily Bridges (Michele Pawk), a hard-driven architect, as the foundation of her family and dependent on her independent spirit, only to strip away her senses of smell, taste, sight, and hearing and force her to rely on the people she's always carried, is a brilliant concept to which Bock should have no trouble doing justice. (The title refers to Emily's first clue that not all is not right with her perception.)

For much of the play, he doesn't. As the burden of existence gradually shifts from Emily to her husband, John (Reed Birney), and their daughter, Jenny (Celia Keenan-Bolger), Bock skillfully deconstructs many of the elements of modern life that we take for granted. Emily's BlackBerry transforms from an extension of her arm into a torture device. Dressing for a special occasion (in this case, Jenny's wedding) becomes less of a personal ritual and becomes a stretch of uneasy bonding between two women who don't understand each other. Even simple small talk conducted between Emily, her family, and her trusted coworker Billy (Victor Williams) becomes an elaborate procedure involving hand signals and secret-keeping that literalizes with haunting effect the minute irrelevancies we speak (or hide) every time we open our mouths.

All of this provides juicy opportunities for the actors, particularly Pawk. She's excellent at showing Emily both at the stalwart peak of her powers, a firm-stanced crusader for all she wants to take from life, and as the broken woman who can barely bear to walk without help from those closest to her. Her outer stoniness, and the cracks that slowly appear on and consume it, define the boundaries of a fascinating woman of strength reduced to utter weakness. Birney smoothly charts John's own journey as he rises from supporting player in Emily's life to the actual support she cannot live without. Keenan-Bolger has a bit of difficulty balancing Jenny's regret and discontent at her mother's lifelong pattern of behavior with the warmth of her latent feelings, but does establish a nice, believable contrast in the world—not everyone comes around, even during times of crisis.

With so much about it that's right, it would seem that A Small Fire would have no trouble coming together. Yet it falls just short, thanks to a combination of Bock's overambitious aims and his underutilized dramatic discipline.

First, in trying to cover the considerable ground of this story in only 80 minutes, Bock seems to be underestimating how deep and significant his story can be. Four characters may not seem like a lot, but when they're facing major life changes—as all of them are, not merely Emily—that running time becomes highly restrictive. The biggest casualty is perhaps Jenny, who comes across as perhaps too cold toward her suffering mother, but no one, from Emily on down, has the chance give the full airing of his or her state of mind that sweeping events such as these would warrant. And when it seems that they might all be approaching legitimate answers to their problems, the play ends before giving either them or us the satisfaction of the culmination of their accumulated wisdom. Because this play is so much about acquiring that, this feels like a major deficiency.

But Bock would be just as well served by better choosing the most important elements to feature in his investigation. Billy is apparently on hand only to deliver a creaky speech about devotion to a character that doesn't really need to hear it, and to provide some gratuitous gay perspective to a story that doesn't demand it. Jenny's fiancĂ©, on the other hand, plays a crucial role in the story of Emily and Jenny's ever-wavering relationship, and is made more conspicuous and sinister than is ideal by his absence. Nor does it help that Emily's last-minute apotheosis occurs by way of her one remaining sense, touch—Bock does not make a compelling case for why reconnecting with something she never lost is such a monumental accomplishment.

None of this dampens the show's impact as Bock's most thoughtful and mature work to date, and his most successful moments reveal a playwright of wider and more supple range than his previous plays have suggested. But if Bock manages to generate a fair amount of smoke and heat even so, his missteps are just enough to prevent A Small Fire from reaching the roaring blaze to which it aspires.

A Small Fire
Through January 23
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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