BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
A young man is aroused from his dead-end existence through an encounter with a girl from the better side of the tracks in “An Early History of Fire,” a new drama by David Rabe given its world premiere by The New Group on Monday.
A leisurely, diffuse new work by the distinguished author of “Sticks and Bones” and “Hurlyburly,” the two-act play presents a laborious amount of build-up into a conclusion that unfortunately registers as something of a dramatic enigma.
Set in a modest house in a medium sized town in the Midwest in 1962, the play centers on Danny (Theo Stockman), a nice enough blue collar guy in his early 20s who lives with his widowed German émigré Pop (Gordon Clapp) and hangs out with his similarly purposeless buddies (Dennis Staroselsky, Jonny Orsini). Recently Danny met Karen (Claire van der Boom), a well-to-do college girl who fires him up in more ways than one.
The story covers three days but is spent mostly on the night when Danny brings Karen to his house for a hopeful tryst that becomes a meltdown for him due to the weed that she offers and the unexpected feelings that she inspires. It is apparent to viewers that Karen, for all of her smart talk about Salinger and Kerouac, is somewhat silly and self-absorbed. Such awareness makes the oblivious Danny’s sudden yen to improve his life seem rather poignant.
The play’s simple dramatic arc is cluttered by extraneous characters and incidents – like a midnight fire in the hills outside town that reflects both Danny’s kindled senses and the wasted years of his life – that may add working-class color but not a terrific amount of meaningfulness to the story.
Perhaps this “early history” is meant by the playwright to be viewed as a prelude to a blazing life that Danny will forge in the future as the 1960s develop. Who knows? In the here and now of the play, poor Danny is merely a thickhead whose prospects appear none too promising.
The acting is all right in director Jo Bonney’s production but the two-level environs designed by Neil Patel gives the living room-kitchen-upstairs hall circumstances of the house an airy feeling when a claustrophobic atmosphere might provide a more appropriate background for Danny’s incipient life.
“An Early History of Fire” continues through May 26 at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd St., New York. Call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.thenewgroup.org.