BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
Adam Bock is the talented author of recent plays like "The Drunken City," a comedy about the romantic aftermath of a bachelorette party and "The Receptionist," an unsettling look at a nice woman's clueless complicity with evil.
His newest work is "A Small Fire," which premiered Thursday at Playwrights Horizons. Economically composed in Bock's typically crisp style, this contemporary 75-minute drama is a poignant study in human diminishment.
In the confident prime of her middle-aged life, Emily (Michele Pawk) is a tough-minded professional — a building contractor — whose senses begin to fail.
First Emily loses her sense of smell and then she cannot taste a sample of the cake being prepared for the wedding of her daughter (Celia Keenan-Bolger). By the time the nuptials occur Emily no longer can see. Emily's husband (Reed Birney) lovingly supports her in these dark times but worse is yet to come.
The play's title refers to the hot spark of humanity burning within Emily that defies her physical erosion. The conclusion witnesses Emily's fleeting triumph over her condition. "I am still in here!" she exults.
Scarcely a Lifetime Channel-style weeper in Bock's unsentimental consideration of a soul under horrible duress, the drama is sad but bearable due to its brevity and emotional restraint, which also is reflected by the production keenly directed by Trip Cullman. The dry-eyed Pawk effectively presents Emily as a vibrant personality dealing as matter-of-factly as she can with nightmarish circumstances. The excellent supporting performances as well as the production's design aspects are quietly rendered and believable.
Unlike some playwrights who write the same thing repeatedly in the same way, Bock deals in a variety of stories and styles. "A Small Fire" proves to be a tragedy in miniature that is no less painful for its reticence.
"A Small Fire" continues through Jan. 23 at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St., New York. Call (212) 279-4200 or visit www.playwrightshorizons.org.