We all know how to start a fire, right? Rub two sticks together long enough and you’ll get something to ignite. Theoretically, maybe, but in the world premiere of David Rabe’s new play, An Early History of Fire at The New Group, the only thing we get is a few smoke signals to alert us that something is amiss.

Danny is a likable, handsome, caring young man. A few years out of high school, he’s the dutiful wage earner for a widowed, immigrant father. For excitement, he hangs out with three childhood buddies, drinking a few beers and dreaming of getting laid — or at the least, going half way.  Danny is comfortable, too comfortable.

Enter Karen, an old high school flame. She’s home for a family visit from her college back east, her head exploding with pseudo-intellectual babble about J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, marijuana, and the pill. It’s the early ’60s, after all, and she’s hell bent on convincing Danny to drop his small town Midwestern ways. The hour’s late, the alcohol is flowing, and things promise to get a little combustible. But don’t get your hopes up too high. Before the night is done, Pop (Danny’s father), Benji, Jake, Terry (the three buddies), and Terry’s girlfriend Shirley will all put in an extended appearance to get in their two cent’s worth and extinguish the campfire.

Oh, there are brush fires aplenty. There’s Jake, the smoldering, loudmouthed jock who resents the “rich bitch” that is diverting his pal Danny from roughhousing with the trio; Terry, who can’t understand why his friend would want to leave “a nice town, with nice people, doing nice things”; and Shirley, who used to be Terry’s girlfriend, but now hangs around a downtown corner turning tricks. Benji’s there too, a big heavyset lug who hangs around hoping to get a chance to learn chess from Pop. And finally, there’s Pop, who tries in his awkward, thick-tongued way to comprehend the incomprehensible. “A man must work until he drops in his tracks” is his motto, but it’s obvious with no work in sight, he will ultimately come undone.  Only in the eleventh hour — when Danny is packing his bags after Karen’s retreat — does the playwright haul Danny’s dead mother out of the closet. She has come to him in a dream, but not to Pop, who goes into a jealous rage over the injustice of it all.

Where there’s smoke there’s fire, so the saying goes, but here there are so many undeveloped themes, which one to ignite?  The old world that Pop still inhabits versus the new; Danny’s out of date romanticism versus Karen’s own personal sexual revolution; or the age old rich versus poor dichotomy that will leave the “sad and tender little  bodies” Danny bemoans “in the middle of nowhere.” Take your pick.

If it’s hard to find the play in Rabe’s script, there is one thing this playwright gets right, and that’s the characters.

We believe Danny when midway through his dilemma over Karen, he says, “Everything I do is somebody else’s idea.” When he tells us the one thing he ever did that made him feel clean was to kick a football, we believe that too. Theo Stockman as Danny hits just the right note of guilelessness to convince. As Karen, Claire van der Boom has a greater challenge: how to be authentically inauthentic? As written, she’s difficult to like. Her character is so full of contradictions and playacting to fit the turbulent times she’s adopted; it’s exhausting to watch her spin and falter. The actress does her level best under the circumstances to meet the challenge.

Danny’s three buddies are perfectly cast as his own three stooges. Dennis Staroselsky’s Jake is a menacing bully; Jonny Orsini’s Terry is the empty-headed buffoon who still can’t believe he almost married the slutty Shirley; and Devin Ratray as Benji lumbers his way through with a fat boy’s charm. Erin Darke as Shirley is full of a sloshed sweetness, managing to be unerringly funny throughout. This ensemble is never better than when, stoned beyond all sensibility, they zone out over their “king” Elvis’ rendition of “Take My Hand.” They manage to salvage what would otherwise be an interminable, over-extended moment in the script.

In the role of Pop, Gordon Clapp is a standout. A former Tony nominee and Theatre World award-winner for David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, his performance just misses being the tragic father-figure that the world left behind. This is hardly the actor’s fault. The confrontation with his son, and his anger over a wife whose upright piano remains a shrine to her place in the home — “we need it for balance, without it, the house would flip over” — comes too late in the play to elevate the moment to anything more than a muddy, domestic squabble.

Jo Bonny’s credits as a director run the gamut of almost every playwright alive on the planet today, and then some. She knows her way around a large proscenium stage and where to place her actors for maximum effect. The playwright is fortunate that she keeps a longwinded piece of theatre focused tightly on the task at hand whenever possible. Neil Patel’s split-level living room and kitchen set, with just the right amount of squalid furnishings, is totally believable and never gets in the way of the action.

Since 1995, under founding director Scott Elliott’s watchful eye, The New Group has presented challenging and contemporary plays, receiving a special Drama Desk award for their efforts.  Audiences may remember their acclaimed revival of Rabe’s Hurlyburly and now, an excellent mounting to his first new play in nine years. Undoubtedly, Rabe is a playwright of some distinction, with powerful early productions at Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre, including such groundbreakers as The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, Sticks and Bones and Streamers. 

One has to assume if the fire is missing in An Early History of Fire, Rabe will create a proper four-alarm blaze for us the next time around.

“An Early History of Fire” will run in a limited engagement through May 26th in New York City at the New Group at Theatre Row (the Acorn Theatre located at 410 West 42nd Street, New York, NY). For more information visit www.thenewgroup.org.

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