Often enough we see plays or movies that captivate initially, but lose their way somewhere. Most often it’s a gradual thing. In the case of A Small Fire the moment is clear.
The conceit of the play is simple. Emily Bridges, a middle-aged, peppy, fast-talking, tell-it-like-it-is contractor, is losing her senses.
The playwright first contrives a near-miss kitchen accident to suggest the onset of Alzheimer’s, but then subverts expectations: Emily (the excellent Michele Pawk, a Tony winner for Hollywood Arms) isn’t losing her mind, but literally her senses, one by one. A sequence of short scenes concisely plots her decline from fiestiness down through increasing helplessness, denial, and into stoic acceptance, with detours into despair.
So: it’s a fable, sort of. Her sense of smell, of sight, of hearing stand for…what? Her bland-ish marriage? Her chilly relationship with her daughter Jenny (the fine Celia Keenan-Bolger), about to marry a man Emily stubbornly can’t bring herself to approve? The connection isn’t solidly drawn.
Meanwhile the accurate-sounding dialogue—playwright Adam Bock is very good at the rhythms of regular-people speech—positions the play in a realist mode. That’s nowhere more evident than in Emily’s warm, bantering relationship with the boisterous Billy (Victor Williams), a protege who’s risen from construction worker to second-in-command. For reasons never explained, this young man, whose big-hearted love of life is signaled by his pigeon-racing hobby, has supplanted Emily’s own family in her affections. Likable and loyal, he obliges homebound Emily’s wish to induce her husband John (an affecting Reed Birney) out of the house to get some fresh air.
And that’s when things fall apart. Out of nowhere Billy produces an awkwardly inspirational speech about watching his old boyfriend die of AIDS, all to convince the much older John not to withdraw from life. It rings as false as dumbstruck Emily’s twitchy hand-wringing, as John’s fragility in the face of calamity, as Jenny’s bitterness towards her mother ring true.
Crisply directed, technically sharp, and well-acted—Ms. Pawk’s performance is especially noteworthy—A Small Fire has its rewards. It is, in fact, two-thirds or more of a good play. But ultimately it doesn’t know what to do with itself. An abrupt ending is only the most symbolic symptom.
A Small Fire runs through January 23 at Playwrights Horizons.
Special A Small Fire offer for Blogcritics readers:
Order by December 31 with code SMGR and tickets are only:
· $40* (reg. $70) for all performances December 16-30, 2010
· $55 (reg. $70) for all performances January 1-23, 2011
HOW TO ORDER:
· Order online at Playwrights Horizons. Use code SMGR.
· Call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 (Noon-8pm daily)
· Present a printout of this post to the Ticket Central box office at 416 West 42nd Street (Noon-8pm daily).
*A limited number of $40 discounted tickets will be available for purchase. Subject to availability. Valid only in select rows.