05/01/2012 12:02 pm ET | Updated Jul 01, 2012

'An Early History of Fire' Review: More Smoke Than Light

An Early History of Fire, a new play by David Rabe, is a coming-of-age tale that would benefit from more time in the forge of the playwright's crucible. As it now stands, it is little more than a meandering trip down memory lane with no clear destination in mind.
The play is set in an unspecified "medium-sized" Midwestern town. The year is 1962, a temporal crossroads between the decade of the Korean War and the Eisenhower presidency and the American cultural revolution that came to be known as the Sixties, and the action is confined to one 24-hour period in late summer.

It focuses on Danny, a college dropout and the son of German blue-collar immigrants, and his new girlfriend, Karen, who is from the rich side of the tracks and attends a university "back East." There are also two of Danny's slacker buddies, the ex-girlfriend of one of them, and his father, who is still fighting the Nazis and whose one passion in life is chess.
Rabe was one of the major voices of the American theater in the 1970's and 80's, and his trilogy of Vietnam War plays, which concluded with the 1976 Streamers, put him in the vanguard of playwrights to write about that divisive era's impact on the national psyche. Other standout works were In the Boom Boom Room (1973); Goose and Tom-Tom (1980); and Hurlyburly (1984).

There are occasional echoes of themes from earlier Rabe plays, but they are frustratingly undeveloped. In Streamers, for example, he examined the idea that war is a natural human condition. In History of Fire, Danny and his pals are planning an old-fashioned rumble the next day with a gang of foes, unidentified except that they are "dorks." And in a long rambling monologue that could be taken from a sophomore reading list, Karen cites Orwell in warning of a future in which there will be "barbarism disguised as progress."

There is a lot of cultural name-dropping. It's almost as though Rabe had a checklist of icons he wanted to mention and forces the plot, such as it is, to zigzag hither and yon so he can touch base with them all. Elvis and J.D. Salinger figure prominently. Elvis sings background in one scene, and Franny and Zooey is a touchstone work for Karen, who identifies with Franny. There are also references to "the pill" ("What's the pill?" Danny asks), to sputnik, and to "that place in Southeast Asia."

But the thrust of the play is youthful angst with no obvious point to make beyond the fact that the future is uncertain. When Karen asks Danny what he wants, he simply replies, "I want to go somewhere." But these themes are never explored.

The play is groaningly repetitious. Karen says three or four times that they are entering a new age. There are inconsistencies and lapses in logic. At one point, Danny is shocked when Karen asks for a drag off his cigarette, then five minutes later doesn't blink an eye when she pulls marijuana out of her handbag and offers it around. Youngsters in the Midwest may have heard about pot in 1962, but few of their daughters carried it around with them, even those home from a college "back East." And it defies credulity when a totally stoned young man can, another five minutes later, soberly explain the epiphany he reached reading A Catcher in the Rye.

There are, of course, references to historic fires throughout the play and during the course of the evening in which it takes place, there is a big one on a local hillside. "People like fires," Danny says. "People like to burn things." But there is no purging conflagration in this brush fire, only clouds of smoke.

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