It takes real skill to write a new play, that feels like a stilted, dated 70's play. Imagine the homefront scenes from The Deer Hunter written by a 14 year-old and you'd have the sense of An Early History of Fire.* There was something immature about the whole endeavor and frankly I thought for the entire time I was watching it that this must be an early work of Rabe's that just never got produced before. But no, it's a new play that should have stayed in a drawer.
Without any real "fire" in it, this new David Rabe play covers well-worn territory. Stifled working class youths, inter-generational strife, burgeoning sexual awakening, grief and loss. When done well these themes resonate and feel timeless. When done poorly, as here, they feel trite, melodramatic and overwrought. Everything seems to be weighed down by an amorphous nostalgia that lacked truth.
Theo Stockman plays Danny, a hard-working blue collar guy, who lives with his immigrant father (Gordon Clapp), neither of whom have gotten over the death of Danny's mother. He has two long-time pals, Terry (Jonny Orsini) and Jake (Dennis Staroselsky) who just want to get laid and get drunk. But Danny has met college student Karen (Claire van der Boom) from the other side of town who opens his eyes to literature, pot, and the world outside his factory worker existence.
Directed by Jo Bonney, the New Group's production looks fantastic (authentic 60's era living room and clothing). But everything sounds a little off. The dialogue is not contemporary but feels dated even for the Midwestern 1960's setting.
Karen is written to be verbose and obnoxious. She pontificates and Danny hangs on her every word and practically suckles the ideas she puts forth, so desperate for emotional or intellectual nourishment. But to the audience, it's all exaggerated and put-upon. van der Boom does her best under the circumstances but it is a hard role to pull off. It just felt like she was unsure of what she was saying as she was saying it and could not even convince the audience that her character was real. The character is more a symbol than a person and as much as David Rabe was trying to set up some tension between rich-girl Karen and poor-boy Danny, it has the class war subtlety of an S.E. Hinton novel. Stockman moans and groans but he doesn't find the emotional marrow of Danny at all. Danny is not written with any delicacy but perhaps a more resourceful actor could have mined something from the lumbering text. It's all angry outbursts or ill-formed expressions of his feelings, but without passion or poetry in the writing.
The stand-out for me in this production was Erin Darke. She plays Shirley, the town hooker and the ex-girlfriend of Terry. Doe-eyed with little to do, she manages to play her few scenes with depth and conviction. She finds the meaning underneath the words so that her character's lies are based in a personal truth. Somehow she manages to give a small character a fully-fleshed out existence. Please cast her in more things world. She's got a spark.
*I received a complementary ticket to this production.