Adam Bock’s plays need to be handled as delicately as someone balancing an egg on a spoon from room to room; one false move and splat. In works like The Thugs and The Receptionist, Bock explored the underbelly of mundane office worlds (many of us can relate to those), and how their appearances are not always what they seem. Bock’s teasing non-reveals can seem laborious to some and revelatory to others, but I think both camps should be thoroughly satisfied with A Small Fire, a searing new evolutionary step for the playwright, simply in that his furtive playfulness is still there, but in the most accessible and honest of ways. It’s only six days into 2011, but it might not be too early to keep this one on the front burner of truly stellar works, so to speak.
The play begins on a construction site with Emily (Michele Pawk), a hard-talkin’, tough broad who laces the profane and the decent in one luminous whole, and her right-hand man and best friend Billy (The King of Queens’s Victor Williams), a lumberjack-built pigeon racer. Then we shift to Emily’s home life, her seemingly staid marriage to the fervently loyal John (Reed Birney) and her tentative feelings about her daughter Jenny’s (Celia Keenan-Bolger) upcoming nuptials to a cheese importer she clearly doesn’t like. After a kitchen scare in which Emily ceases to smell a gas fire, her senses begin to mysteriously disappear one by one, leaving this once indestructible force of nature stripped down to an unenviable core.
Bock’s sensitive rendering of the way our bodies betray us in the cruelest of ways is a smashing allegory for just about any disease you can name, only without the self-pity and sentimentality that frequently creates hash of such complex material. Bitter truths ring out constantly throughout, as in Jenny’s continued resentment of her mother even after her senses have gone, and in one of the most striking passages in the play, in which Emily admits that her affection to John has appeared unexpectedly (“I didn’t love you…but I love you now”). In one line, Bock creates a whole past, present, and future of its central couple. Beautiful stuff.
Most impressive is the innate understanding of how one conforms to bad news: Instead of throwing chairs and screaming, stuff that would be employed in a far-lesser work, Emily simply deals with the consequences, which will be instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever witnessed deterioration in a loved one or friend. This woman’s steely reserve is still there, even if she cannot put on her shoes or hear her friend’s voice. Bock has such a delicacy in his writing style that even when a major revelation about one of its characters presents itself, it is genuinely surprising because the thought hadn’t even crossed your mind.
That delicacy doesn’t come easily, and thankfully, Bock has a terrific eye in director Trip Cullman to lend it shape (the lighting cues are especially haunting), and just about the best cast a playwright could ever hope for. Keenan-Bolger—proving a forceful dramatic actress these days—and Williams are ideal as Emily’s main orbit, but it’s the pairing of Pawk (Hollywood Arms, The Paris Letter) and Birney (Circle Mirror Transformation, Blasted) that is a complete bullseye. Any theatergoer worth their Playbills should know that these are two extraordinary, versatile talents, but their work continues to astonish; Birney is unmatched in his ability to embody middle-aged, soulful sacrifice, and Pawk—among the most frequently undervalued presences in the theater—thoroughly resists victimhood in every scene, and gives her all in an earthy, sensual, thrilling display of non-participatory resignation that never feels defeating. It’s quite ironic how a play about the debilitation of the senses can actually enhance yours, but there you have it.
After witnessing just about any 10-minute stretch in the shockingly ill-advised revival of the classic Dracula, you’ll wish you shared Emily’s afflictions in A Small Fire. This has to be the first-ever production of this tale in which Dr. Seward is more charismatic than Van Helsing, and Jonathan Harker has more sex appeal than the Drac. What director Paul Alexander did in this show’s prep is beyond me: actors are so poorly blocked you miss major moments entirely; Renfield acts more like Clairee in Steel Magnolias than himself; and Dracula (played by Italian actor-model Michel Altieri in what has to be the worst performance ever seen on 42nd Street) is less swoon-worthy lady killer than petulant, dopey Eurotrash right out of a new wave video from the ’80s. I’m positive the behind-the-scenes fodder involving the dismissal/leave of actress Thora Birch is more pungently melodramatic than all that’s dying on the Little Shubert stage right now (trust me, she got off easy). Pardon the pun folks, but it can’t be said any clearer: This Dracula sucks.
A Small Fire is now playing at Playwrights Horizons (416 W. 42nd St. at 9th Ave) in New York City and continues until January 30. Schedule: Tue at 7pm, Wed-Sat at 8pm, Sat & Sun at 2:30pm, Sun at 7:30pm. Running time: 1 hours and 20 minutes, no intermission. Dracula is now playing at the Little Shubert Theatre (422 W. 42nd St. near 9th Ave) in New York City until March 13. Schedule: Tue – Thu at 7pm, Fri & Sat at 8pm, Sat & Sun at 2:30pm, Sun at 7pm. Running time: 2 hours, one intermission.