By Sam Affoumado
The New Group’s production of Tony Award-winning playwright David Rabe’s new play, An Early History of Fire is a drama that fails to ignite. Directed by Jo Bonney and set in a mid-western town in the fall of 1962, Mr. Rabe tells the story of Danny (Theo Stockman), a college dropout who is enchanted by a wealthy, upper class, East Coast college coed, Karen (Claire van der Boom) who is back in town visiting her parents.
Danny is resentful of his father, Pop (Gordon Clapp) and frustrated because he is still living under the shadow of this out-of-work, old-world, blowhard of a man. Up until now, Danny has been living an ordinary life defined by loyalty and friendship but he is becoming restless and he is conflicted about whether or not to maintain the status quo of his childhood friendships with Terry (Jonny Orsini) and Jake (Dennis Staroselsky) or leave his home in search of something better.
Karen offers something different. She is unlike any girl Danny has ever met.
Karen lives on Citadel Avenue (the ritzy part of town) and she brings with
her a modicum of self-proclaimed sophistication as she introduces Danny to the wonders of “smoking pot” and to the books and radical ideas that grace
the pages of J.D. Salinger’s, The Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey. Karen beguiles Danny with her rather unconventional ideas fashioned after Kerouac’s, On the Road. Though he admits to not really understanding these books, Danny is intrigued by the books’ characters and by the ideas they
convey. Danny, like Holden Caulfield, the young protagonist in The Catcher
in the Rye, feels alienated and hates hypocrites and phonies. Like Holden,
Danny criticizes the people around him: his father for being a pompous
intellectual who longs for the old-world prestige he once enjoyed before the
Nazis forced him and his wife to flee their beloved Germany. Adding to
Danny’s hostility is the fact that his father was fired for standing up to his
bullying boss, and now cannot find a job and contribute to the household.
Danny begins to withdraw from his childhood friends Terry and Jake who
are also living in the past and trying to recapture their youth while wasting
their lives picking fights with “dorks” and for the embarrassingly immature
way they relate to women. Danny admits to having a darker side as when he
reveals to Karen that he has imagined committing suicide by falling off a
cliff. He, like his childhood buddies, can be phony and mean-spirited.
There are many parallels between the characters in Rabe’s play and the
characters in the novels they read. Danny is like Holden Caulfield on many
levels and Karen relates to both Franny and Phoebe, characters in Franny
and Zooey and The Catcher in the Rye respectively. Themes abound in An
Early History of Fire just as they do in the novels of the “beat generation.”
Alienation, hatred of authority, fear of change, loyalty and friendship,
coming of age, egotism and hypocrisy in intellectual academia, sex and
drugs and the objectification of women are all evident themes. Perhaps there
are too many themes and metaphors. Fires can devastate and destroy but
they can also foster new growth and provide a fresh, new start.
Portraying the loss of innocence in America by spotlighting the literature of
the times does not allow the audience to make any real emotional connection
to the characters on stage, despite the energy and conviction of the fine cast.
At times, the characters appear to be more representational than they are
three-dimensional. Though An Early History of Fire has some fine moments,
there are no real surprises.
The production team includes Neil Patel whose working class set consists of
dingy wallpaper, a rotting sofa bed standing on its last legs and mid-century
red kitchen chairs giving the audience a vivid depiction of the period.
Theresa Squire (costume Design), Lap Chi Chu (lighting design) and Ken
Travis (sound design) round out the creative team. The Dialect Coach
is Doug Paulson and the Fight Director is David Anzuelo.
An Early History of Fire plays at The New Group @ Theatre Row (The
Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues) as
follows: Monday to Wednesday at 7:00PM Thursday to Saturday at
8:00PM. Matinees on Saturday at 2:00PM. Tickets through
www.telecharge.com or (212) 239-6200, or at the Theatre Row Box Office
(12-8PM) daily. For further information, visit www.thenewgroup.org.
Photos: Monique Carboni
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