Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Neuwirth plays Emily Bridges, a no-nonsense business woman who runs her own successful construction company. Emily pokes fun at husband John's (John Dossett) disaster preparations and daughter Jenny's (Sarah Gliko) soon to be husband, but the family seems content until Emily suddenly loses her sense of smell. Taste, vision and hearing each fail in quick succession. The play is not really about Emily's illness. There is almost no discussion about the cause of her sudden ailment or how it is likely to progress. Instead, the play focuses on the way Emily, her family, and best friend Billy (Oge Agulué) react to the illness and each other.
The problem is that Neuwirth's Emily is not particularly robust or tenacious from the start. Under Joanie Schultz' static direction, Neuwirth plays much of the first scene sitting down or standing still. Emily is practical in her interactions with second in command Billy, but never harsh. The styling and costumes contribute to the sense that Emily is not all that strong from to begin with. Her hair is visibly graying and worn in a soft half ponytail. Tightly tailored costumes make her look frail and inappropriately attired for work on a construction site. Emily does not have far enough to fall, so the audience feels like with each new ailment we are watching someone getting kicked (and kicked and kicked) while she is already down.
There are some truly engaging moments. The dialogue between Dossett and Gliko as they plan seating arrangements for the wedding is authentic and touching. Neuwirth sitting silently on the couch gently fidgeting around for information from the outside world is quietly powerful. Even Agulué's excitement over his carrier pigeon is contagious. But for the most part the play trudges along as Emily's debilitating illness renders her increasingly isolated and distressed.
It seems possible that playwright Adam Bock is attempting to create something absurd with the remarkably rapid and devastating progression of Emily's illness. There are indeed a few it's-so-awful-you-have-to-laugh moments, such as when Emily abruptly notices she has gone blind ("I can't see anything!") and when she offers her devoted husband the world's most backhanded declaration of love. But if the goal is absurdity, A Small Fire does not go far enough. Emily's idiopathic and isolated sensory dysfunction may be medically implausible, but the extent of her functional decline is hardly unique.
For Neuwirth fans the chance to see her acting in Philly may well be worth the price of admission. For everyone else, this may be one to skip.
A Small Fire runs through November 10, 2019, at Philadelphia Theatre Company, Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia PA. For tickets and information, visit philadelphiatheatrecompany.org or call 215-985-0420.