A CurtainUp Review
A Small Fire
By Elyse Sommer
But while each Bock play is unique in terms of plot and characters, Bock watchers may see some connecting threads: all the plays tend to be short . . . the characters and their stories blend ordinary and extraordinary. . . even when the focus seems to be on one setting (The Typographers, Thugs and The Receptionist all played out in offices) the story telling approach is always totally new (example: The Receptionist moves the office straight into Rod Serling territory).
A Small Fire, now having its world premiere at Playwrights Horizon, is true to form. It starts out in a work place setting, though this one is blue collar. Like Drunken City, also produced by Playwrights Horizon and directed by Trip Cullman, wedding bells are in the offing. But, while Drunken City was essentially a comedy with touches of fantasy, A Small Fire is definitely a tragedy — poignant enough for sniffling from audience members to be part of the sound effects, especially during the final of its sixteen brief scenes.
A Small Fire opens at a building site where we meet Emily Bridges (Michele Pawk), the owner of a construction company and her manager Billy Fontaine (Victor Williams). Launching the play this way quickly and efficiently gives us a picture of a tough, controlling entrepreneur in an industry usually headed by men. To broaden the picture we next see Emily in her Connecticut home with her loving and solicitous husband John (Reed Birney). Rounding out the family profile there's their soon-to-be married daughter Jenny (Celia Keenan-Bolger), a lawyer.
Hints about unresolved tensions between mother and daughter come via Emily's lack of enthusiasm for her future son-in-law whose career as a cheese importer she disdains — a nice touch of reverse macho. John, who works in human resources is clearly the gentler partner in the Bridges marriage which signals further undercurrents in the all's well familial picture. But these potential ripples in the harmonious surface are overwhelmed by the tidal wave of Emily's sudden physical problems of which the loss of her sense of smell is only the beginning.
If you've ever wondered which of your five senses you could most easily do without, it would probably be the sense of smell, a diminishment of which is a fairly common thing for people far older than Emily. But, as the fire of the title makes clear, the small mishaps this can cause could indeed turn into major disasters if not caught in time.
Without giving away too much, John manages to keep the small fire caused by Emily's failing to turn off the stove and not smelling the smoke from a nearby napkin from burning down the house. This small fire nevertheless explodes as that diminished sense of smell Emily pooh pooh's as unimportant, builds into a full fledged physical and emotional bonfire for the Bridges.
Watching the very much in control of her life Emily suddenly made powerless by the bad hand fate has dealt her is devastating. Equally heartbreaking is seeing John's natural role as the always supportive and caring husband and father, stretched to the very limits and Emily's never easy relationship with her mother move into crisis mode.
All this could easily be one of those medical disease of the month TV movies if the actors didn't bring out the individuality of these characters and downplay the script's soap-operatic tendencies. Michele Pawk, who may be most familiar to theater goers for her musical theater roles, makes Emily as believable as she is vivid. Reed Birney, a steadily working actor a whose may not be a box office magne but who goes from strength to strength with each new role he takes on. As John he sometimes overdoes the laid back, intimate school of dialogue that's delivered as if by two people to each other without having to project with an awareness of the audience, but he never fails to project strong, genuine emotion. John Bridges is yet another solid addition to this actor's diverse resume which includes last year's Circle Mirror Transformation, another Playwrights Horizon play by a much applauded young playwright, Annie Baker.
Celia Keenan-Bolger, who I first saw when The 25th Putnam County Spelling Bee premiered at Barrington Stage in the Berkshires, makes the most of the relatively minor role of the daughter who cares, but not quite enough. Victor Williams does his best to keep Billy Fontaine, Emily's friend and employee, from coming off as the stereotype of the family outsider with whom she communicates most effectively. He's also the source of some much needed lighter moments and the pigeons he raises add a nice symbolic touch.
Trip Cullman's fast-paced staging features a versatile sliding set by Loy Arcenas. It accommodates the construction site, the various rooms of the Bridges home, and, with the help of lighting designer David Weiner, a wedding scene. Costume designer Ilona Somogyi and composer/sound designer Robert Kaplowitz complete the always excellent production values at Playwrights Horizons' Main Stage.
The sudden malfunctioning of a fully functioning middle-aged woman's sensory system that's this play's plot trigger is a medical event that's so rare (if, in fact, grounded in actual case histories) that it seems almost surreal. So much so that it left me wondering if the playwright intended it as a metaphor for other ways people in our stressful modern society are faced with a loss of control of the things that give meaning to their lives.
Links to other plays by Adam Bock reviewed at Curtainup:
The Drunken City(2008)
Five Flights (2004
Typographer's Dream (2003)