An Early History of Fire

  • Date:
    April 1, 2012
    Review by:
    Tulis McCall

    (Review by Tulis McCall)

    Well this is a soggy disappointment that is packed with potential.

    Emile (Gordon Clapp) and his son Danny (Theo Stockman) share what appears to be a one-bedroom house (the one bedroom is upstairs and Danny sleeps on the pull out couch in the living room) in an unnamed mid-western neighborhood. Danny works in a local factory and has retained his childhood friends Jake (Dennis Staroselsky) Terry (Johnny Orsini). Jake is all mouth and Terry is still a child in many, many ways. Danny has been dating a rich girl Karen (Claire van der Boom) who is on vacation from a college back east, and he is not only smitten, he has come up against class differences. He is beginning to see himself the way her parents would, and he doesn’t like the picture. He has never left his hometown and has little to show for himself. Karen not only has money, she has seen what is out there in the world. She smokes marijuana. She reads Salinger. She has seen ‘things” and done “things”. It is all very attractive and humiliating at the same time. She is the flame from which Danny cannot stay away.

    On the other end of the spectrum is his father, who is still living in Nazi-time. Emile’s only friend seems to be the local lap-dog, Benji, who craves any attention he can get. Pop has promised to teach Benji chess, and that is about as good as it has ever gotten for Benji. Danny watches this relationship with barely restrained disdain. Danny has hated his father ever since Danny’s mother dropped dead. Life was suspect after that. But with the arrival of Karen, Danny is feeling the breeze of possibility.

    The rest of his friends, including Shirley (Erin Darke) who has recently started a new career as a small town hooker, view Karen with the suspicion she is due. After all, she is just home for vacation. Danny is an adventure to her, not someone she would actually take seriously.

    It is a volatile time, 1962. The country was emerging from the 1950’s tight fitting expectations and sailing into the land of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. Everything was coming into focus, and the edges were sharper than anyone had imagined.

    In this story is great potential, but Rabe does not deliver. These people are more icons than characters. They speak in near platitudes about the changes that are going on and how they are all about to explode. The part that should matter, which is the fact that all of them are broken hearted, gets lost in the tissue of words, words, words. It is as though every character had a coating of shellac because nothing sticks to them.

    It’s too bad, really because these were the folk who lead the way for the rest of us. They were the first ones to jump in to pool. These were contemporaries of John Lennon, folks. Come on! There’s a billion stories in there. But in this play, the story is lacking. There is no fire. There is not even a spark.

    "A tumultuous work that has been given a surprisingly flat production by the New Group"
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "No heat. No point. No thanks. “An Early History of Fire” is a dramatic fizzle."
    Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News

    "So mind-boggingly bad, you can only wonder: Shouldn’t these people know better?”
    Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post

    "Unfortunate tendency to meander, seemingly never quite sure of where it wants to go and what it wants to say"
    Erik Haagensen for Back Stage

    "A laborious amount of build-up into a conclusion that unfortunately registers as something of a dramatic enigma."
    Michael Sommers for Newsroom Jersey

    "In the mouths of his working-class characters, Rabe's muscular language gives poignant voice to the last generation that came of age during the Kennedy years."
    Marilyn Stasio for Variety

    External links to full reviews from popular press...

    New York Times - New York Daily News - New York Post - Back Stage - Newsroom Jersey - Variety