January 5, 2011

"A Small Fire" is Quietly Devastating

Marriage—especially what makes for a long-lasting one—has been on my mind a lot lately.  Maybe it’s the fact that my wedding anniversary is coming up at the end of this week. I suspect it may also have something to do with the fact that I just finished reading “Must You Go?,” Antonia Fraser’s moving memoir of her deliriously happy 33-year marriage to the playwright Harold Pinter.  But my nuptial fixation deepened even more when I saw A Small Fire, the oddly touching new play by Adam Bock that opens at Playwrights Horizons this week.

A Small Fire tells the story of a long-married, middle-aged couple. Emily is the gruff owner of a construction company who delights in driving hard, profanity-laden deals. Her husband John is a mild-mannered guy who works in human resources and has always been the more nurturing parent to their now-grown daughter. They are something of a mismatched pair but over the years they've figured out how to make themselves fit. Then a mysterious malady upsets that fragile equanimity (click here to see a spoiler-free trailer).  

The way the couple copes includes a pretty graphic sex scene, complete with frontal nudity.  But Bock and his frequent director Trip Cullman are more interested in a different kind of nakedness. They want to examine the emotional interplay when people are stripped of their usual ways of connecting so that the habitual accommodations that have held them together no longer work.

That places a heavy burden on the actors playing Emily and John but Michele Pawk and Reed Birney step up to the challenge and bring a poignant vulnerability to their roles (click here to read an interview Birney gave the Village Voice). This isn’t the kind of play that ties up all its loose ends but these actors are so effective at summing up the pain of losing the things we all take for granted that I found myself reaching out just to touch my husband K several times during the performance—and grateful that I could.

But Pawk and Birney aren’t the only ones who resonate in this four-character cautionary tale. Bock routinely integrates non-stereotypically gay characters into his plays (click here to see my review of his romantic comedy The Drunken City) and this time that role is filled by Emily’s easygoing foreman, winningly played by Victor Williams, who employs none of the usual fey clichés. 

A Small Fire runs just 90 minutes and after it was over, K and I walked across the street for dinner at the West Bank Cafe, one of the best places to eat in the theater district because the food is good (not just passable) the prices are affordable and everyone—famous faces and anonymous ones alike—gets the same welcoming treatment. 

Williams later came in and joined his wife and kids for dinner. On his way back from the men’s room, K stopped to congratulate the young actor, who, in turn, introduced him to Bock who was sitting at a nearby table. On his way out, Bock took the time to come over and shake my hand.  It was a lovely gesture and it moved me, just as does his play. 


karigee said...

Beautiful review. I loved this play. I can't stop talking—or thinking—about it. It's a special little gem.

Sarah B. Roberts said...

Beautiful review. I saw this with my friend Kari. We went because we love Michele Pawk, and came out completely affected by the play itself as well as the performances. The culmination of the final scene was one of the most beautiful displays of communication I have ever seen on a stage. I will remember this one not only because it still has me thinking about the way I communicate but also because of how moved my dear friend was - rarely have I seen her so affected by a play and I know she has already gone back at least once or twice.

Also, congratulations and best wishes for your wedding anniversary!

jan@broadwayandme said...

Hey guys, thanks for the lovely words about this post and the good wishes for my anniversary. I'm so glad you liked this play too. Bock is becoming one of my favorite playwrights and I hope this play has a long life, here and elsewhere, because as much as I like this production, I'd also love to see what colors other directors and actors bring out in this compellingly visceral work.