"AN EARLY HISTORY OF FIRE" IS THE PLAYWRIGHT'S FIRST NEW PLAY IN NINE YEARS
BY HENRY EDWARDS
Prior to ringing down the curtain on its 2011-2012 three-play season, Scott Elliott’s perpetually adventurous Off-Broadway theater company, The New Group, turned its attention to staging the world premiere of David Rabe’s first play in nine years, “An Early History of Fire.”
Four of Rabe's twelve plays, “Sticks and Bones,” The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel” and “Streamers,” each based on the playwright's experiences as an Army draftee in Vietnam, along with Rabe's drug fueled dark comedy of the casual cruelty of contemporary life,"Hurlyburly," have been nominated for Tony Awards; “Sticks and Bones” was the one to nail the prize.
Needless to say, the production of a new play by Rabe, especially after such a long absence—the playwright spent his lengthy sabbatical writing three novels—qualifies as a theatrical event.
The characters in Rabe’s plays frequently lack a compass. In their search for their identities, they seem to be driven by internal forces that are hard— if not imposible—to control. For them moments of unexpected explosiveness have proven to be inevitable.
Those conventions do not offer a clue to "Early History." Of all things, Rabe's new effort is a coming-of-age tale. This literary genre typically presents a character whose personal drama (more often than not involving life's cruelties, family, friends or community issues) leads to his or her growth and development as a human being.
It's a form that often appeals to writers, allowing them to dramatize how their particular coming of age launched their careers as writers; Rabe's play convceivably fits this particular bill.
Location is key to what's on the playwright's mind. “Early History” is set in a Midwestern town during the late summer of August 1962. While the oppressive 1950’s atmosphere continues to hang heavy in the air, the 1960’s social revolution is beginning to bubble under the deceptively complacent surface. (It will take Bob Dylan another two years before he writes "The Times They Are A-Changin'.") Rabe’s intention to investigate the lives of young people who have come of age during this dramatic, transitional cusp.
The plot (such as it is) is a familiar one. Danny (Theo Stockman), the protagonist of this loquacious play, is a working-class college dropout, feels trapped, but can neither artriculate the reasons for his distress nor devise a way out of the trap. Things undergo a drastic change when he meets a girl (what else?) from the other side of the tracks (the good side!).
Karen (Claire van der Boom) is a rich, pretty college co-ed (attending an Eastern college), who smokes marijuana(!) and knows about one of the great—and at that moment in time—thoroughly surprising scientific discovery, the birth-control pill(!).
She provides the vehicle to allow Rabe to remind us of something that for the most part has been forgotten—that once upon a time in a constricted, pre-Internet world, young people often got their information from reading powerful and influential fiction.
When Danny meets Karen, she is reading “The Catcher in the Rye,” leading him to buy and to read J. D. Salinger’s classic novel of adolescent confusion, angst, alienation and rebellion. Danny senses that Salinger’s Holden Caulfield and he share the aching desire to break free.
Under the influence of alcohol and pot, Karen prattles on about Jack Kerouac’s ultimate road novel, “On the Road,” Danny allows this book to further stimulate Danny's desire to seek a life that offers promise.
It is this introduction of literature into his life andh is feelings for Karen that trigger the young man's escape as well as his first steps in journal keeping that the audience instinctively senses will eventually transform him into a writer.
Much of this material lacks freshness. What is fresh is Rabe’s abundantly poetic language which bristles with unexpected twists and turns, including a striking date scene in which Karen wants sex—she's read "Lady Chatterly's Lover" and envisions Danny as a working-class fling,while he craves marriage and respectability.
There is also a heartbreaking silent moment when a stoned Danny and Karen and Danny’s childhood friends, Terry (Jonny Orsini) and Jake (Dennis Staroselsky), and Terry’s former girlfriend, Shirley (Erin Darke), who has turned to hooking, listen to Elvis Presley's rendition of "Can't Help Falling In Love," and their faces individually register the sheer pleasure, awe and mystical experience the best of popular culture can inspire.
This moment also pays tribute to Jo Bonney's precisely orchestrated staging of the play.
For the most part, “Early Fire” is wonderfully acted. Theo Stockman’s Danny, emphatic, admirable and enormously sympathetic, is a masterful creation. Jonny Orsini and Dennis Staroselsky are perfect as Danny’s childhood friends, one good-natured, the other distressingly volatile. Gordon Clap as Danny’s belligerent, selfish immigrant father, is extremely easy to dislike.
Claire van der Boom is perhaps too affected as Karen, while Erin Darke's former girlfriend is genuinely amusing.
The New Group has a working relationship with Rabe, having staged a spectacular revival of "Hurlyburly," and it is to its credit that it mounted a first-rate production of a play with the feel of a work in progress. "Early Fire" deserved to be treated as such. And yet many critics rendered harsh judgments. Those same scribes undoubtedly would be the first to complain about the hit or miss nature of the current theatre scene, and yet they seem to have no awareness of the contribution they could make.
The New Group’s season included the Off-Broadway debut of downtown phenomenon Thomas Bradshaw’s phantasmagoric, full-frontal nudity epic. “Burning,” and “Russian Transport,” Erika Sheffer's ultra-realistic debut effort set in the Russian-Jewish enclave of Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. Both were directed by Scott Elliott in two startlingly different (and totally appropriate) styles.
Elliott's theatre continues to make a vital contribution and one that should never be taken for granted.
“An Early History of Fire” continues at Acorn Theater in Theatre Row through May 26. (www.thenewgroup.org).