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Aisle View: Fire without Substance

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And here we have a revival of Jon Robin Baitz' 1991 play The Substance of Fire, which introduced a decidedly promising playwright and garnered all-round, well-deserved praise. Directed by Daniel Sullivan, it featured a career-making performance by character man Ron Rifkin as an aging publisher fighting bankruptcy, a trio of battling children, and increasingly debilitating memories of his experiences during the Holocaust. The play was exciting and provocative at both Playwrights Horizons and the Mitzi Newhouse, where it quickly transferred. (One of the final offerings from André Bishop during his reign as artistic director of Playwrights, he brought the production with him when he moved up to Lincoln Center Theater.) In revival twenty-three years later, though, this same play demonstrates only flashes of interest. This Substance of Fire generates very little heat.

This is something of a surprise, to this viewer at least. The new production at Second Stage Theatre--directed by Trip Cullman, who did a superb job last year with Choir Boy at the Manhattan Theatre Club--is not so good as the first, no; and the present acting company can't quite compare to original cast (which included Sarah Jessica Parker and Maria Tucci). But unless the director fouls things up altogether or the cast is unequal to the challenge, a well-written and incisive play--a quarter-century later--ought still to be well-written and incisive. The present Substance of Fire meanders its way along. The plot devices seem overly-familiar and decidedly non-gripping, and the play--in this production--doesn't seem to add up to much.

John Noble, in Rifkin's role of Isaac Geldhart, is not part of the problem. An Australian with intensive stage credits, he is better known for his roles on screen (The Lord of the Rings) and television (Fringe). Noble gives a convincing performance as the stubborn, embattled European émigré, and New York producers might well take note. The three actors playing his children are not quite so successful, presumably due to the direction; we don't care much about their characters or their characters' predicaments. By not being invested in them, we are ultimately only peripherally interested in Isaac. Thus, we sit there observing the story rather than feeling it.

Charlayne Woodard--author of four acclaimed solo plays and an original cast member of Ain't Misbehavin'--plays the fifth role, of the visiting social worker, and as usual she is a joy to watch. The scene has always seemed somewhat disjointed from the first act, though, and at Second Stage it seems as if we have launched into a totally different comedy altogether.

Anna Louizos (In the Heights) has provided two first-rate sets, a stately publishing house in the first act and an even more stately Gramercy Park apartment in the second. But the scenery, and the performance of Mr. Noble, are the main assets of this production of The Substance of Fire. Not enough substance to make a strong case for Mr. Baitz's script.

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The Substance of Fire, by Jon Robin Baitz, opened April 27, 2014 at Second Stage Theatre