A CurtainUp Review
Substance of Fire
By Elyse Sommer
For me seeing a play I remembered fondly turned out to be a bittersweet pleasure. Baitz's terrific dialogue, especially in the first act, can still light a fire for anyone who appreciates smart stage talk. But somehow the flaws that seemed secondary the first time around were not as easy to ignore this time.
The revival is certainly timely. Baitz's drama about a family disintegrating in the face of their disagreement about how to save the family enterprise from collapsing at a time of increasing takeovers by huge, strictly bottom-line oriented conglomerates is a pungent precursor to the even more extreme challenges faced by today's book publishing enterprises, large as well as small.
My first encounter with The Substance of Fire was pre-Curtainup. Since I was still in the book publishing business the takeovers of family founded and run firms by large international organizations were very real to me, especially since my own specialty, the midlist book was in survival mode.(Midlist is a term referring to fiction or non-fiction that could enjoy a long life based on modest rather than mega-hit sales figures). Maybe being involved with this industry is why the clumsy second act didn't really register in my memory book as Baitz's scintillating first act and Ron Rifkin masterful performance as the embattled publisher did.
Rifkin had a chance to play another of Baitz's deeply conflicted businessmen in Paris Letter). Unfortunately he either wasn't asked or available to once again take on the troubled character he so memorably created at Playwright Horizon, Lincoln Center and in the film version: a Lear-like head of his own little kingdom whose downfall like Lear's was largely self-created. As Lear unwisely divided his kingdom, so Isaac loses his children as well as his business as a result of his uncompromising perfectionism and unloving ways.
John Noble, a seasoned actor and director from Australia who's best known to American audiences for his TV work (notably the Sleepy Hollow series), is more okay than riveting. The nuances of Isaac's complex character — the charm, intelligence and good sense mixed with caustic humor, belligerence and, most of all, the smoldering fire of his painful Holocaust childhood — aren't as natural and effortless for Noble as they were for Mr. Rifkin.
The actors playing the three children convey their disgust with their father's high-handed determination to stick to his way no matter how wrong, as well as their persistent need for his consistently withheld approval. What they get instead of praise and encouragement are hurtful putdowns.
Isaac describes Sarah (Hallie Feiffer), an actor on a nationally televised children's show as a clown for hire for children's birthday parties and refers to Martin (Daniel Eric Gold), a Rhodes scholar and teacher of landscape architecture at Vassar, as a gardener. His most disparaging comments, however, are reserved for Aaron (Carter Hudson), the only son who could be persuaded to join the business. The pragmatic Aaron (an MBA Isaac refers to as his bookkeeper) wants to save the company from bankruptcy by publishing a novel with best-selling potential instead of his latest horror focused enterprise, a four-volume history of Nazi medical experiments. (Though Aaron is married, he and the novelist have been and are again lovers).
It's to enlist his siblings to help him to save the business in which they're all shareholders, that Aaron has summoned Sarah from Hollywood and Martin from Poughkeepsie. And it's that boardroom meeting which takes up the first act that's this play's finest hour. The interchanges between the cantankerous Isaac and his children are still utterly engaging.
We get to know each of these characters' vulnerabilities. And while Isaac always was and still is the play's pivotal and most opinionated character, Baitz has given the children plenty of terrific lines. Though the mild-mannered Martin eventually turns out to be Isaac's Cordelia, he has a devastating explosion when he tells his father that though he may have come from an awful childhood and achieved a seer-like standing in the publishing world, he's created "a family of literary zombies" as a result of his inability to relate to and through anything other than books — an obsessive focus that saw nothing cruel or pretentious in giving an 8-year old The Illiad in Greek and Dickens in French.
While Baitz wrote a slightly altered script for the movie, with additional characters, he did not deal with the play's moving away from that compelling first act into a rambling second act. And he's obviously opted to let this revival stand as an example of his early career.
And so, after an absorbing hour with the Geldhart family, the move to Isaac's Gramercy Park apartment (like the boardroom, excellent work by Anna Louizos) three years later is a disappointing aftermath to that dynamic beginning. Aaron and Sarah have been dropped altogether and a new character trotted out as if the playwright were still fiddling around with different ways to complete Isaac's story.
The highly charged boardroom drama takes a backseat to making Isaac face up to and bury his demons before the dementia he seems to be suffering from gets worse. Clearly the only possibility for a father-child reconciliation is with Martin who is on board as an occasional caretaker and obviously as physically doomed as Cordelia in King Lear.
Marge Hackett (the always excellent Charlayne Woodward in a thankless role), a psychiatric social worker sent by Aaron to establish Isaac's incompetency to have any part in the firm now in bankruptcy is given a back story that further disassociates this act from the first. A symbolic prop that's a carry-over from the boardroom scene— a postcard of a painting by a young Adolph Hitler— is now over burdened with the task of achieving a not especially satisfying redemptive finale.
The book business, no matter what's published, continues to be pummeled by the E-Book and Amazon tide with even Barnes & Noble likely to go the way of Dalton's a long defunct chain mentioned in the play. I'm sure there are many fascinating plays about people caught in this maelstrom. Wouldn't it be nice if Jon Robin Baitz followed up his most recent success, Other Desert Cities, by dramatizing one of those stories.