"The Substance of Fire" revival lacks spark

"The Substance of Fire" revival lacks spark

John Noble, Halley Feiffer, Daniel Eric Gold, and Carter Hudson. Photos by Carol rosegg

“I thought that if I published Hazlitt and Svevo, I’d be spared,” says Isaac Geldhart, the patriarch publisher in the disappointing revival of “The Substance of Fire,” now at the Second Stage Theatre.

A hidden-child survivor of the Holocaust, who spent the war in a basement reading, Isaac has built a publishing house in New York devoted to serious works by serious writers, hoping that timeless art would provide a bulwark against the horror of the world. And for a while it does – Isaac is a successful, sophisticated member of the New York literati, with a charming wife and a glamorous social life, a razor-sharp wit and custom-made shoes.

When the play opens, however, the world has turned on Isaac. It is the late 1980s, and his refined tastes have brought the Geldhart publishing house to the brink of collapse. His M.B.A. son Aaron (Carter Hudson) wants to change course radically and publish commercial fiction rather than a six-volume set on Nazi medical experiments. Aaron has a Japanese company ready to invest, but to wrest control of the company from his imperious, scornful father, Aaron has to convince his brother, Martin (Daniel Eric Gold), and his sister, Sarah (Halley Feiffer), to release their shares in the company to him.

The first act takes place in the firm’s book-lined boardroom, where the father and children struggle for control not only of the business but also of their emotional ties to one another. As each member of the family invites another to share a meal and is refused, it is clear that those ties already are broken. Martin, a landscape architect, accuses Isaac of creating a family of literary zombies. Books have ruined them, he says, as he confesses that he has built shelves all over his house for the 14,386 volumes his mother left him. “No sex, no people, just books till I die.” Isaac has substituted books for feelings, for honesty, for human connection, and his children cannot forgive him for it.

Originally staged in 1991, “The Substance of Fire” marked the start of an illustrious career for playwright Jon Robin Baitz. He was only in his late twenties at the time, and the play’s brilliant dialogue – much of it searingly funny – and its enthusiastic engagement with real ideas about the role and value of art and literature and family dynamics made it stand out during that theater season. Mr. Baitz has fulfilled that early promise and gone on to write “Other Desert Cities,” the 2012 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as well as other plays, and to create the television series “Brothers and Sisters.”

To watch the current production, directed by Trip Cullman, is to consider how fortunate Mr. Baitz was with his original cast. John Noble, who was so lovable as Dr. Walter Bishop in the science-fiction series “Fringe,” is miscast as Isaac Geldhart. Unlike Ron Rifkin in the original production, Mr. Noble is neither scathing nor charming enough to make it clear why Isaac’s children are so desperate for his approval and so furious at his emotional remove. And, to be blunt, he is not Jewish enough. Mr. Rifkin captured those strange qualities of moral superiority and furious condescension that some Holocaust survivors wear like a cloak of entitlement. Although Mr. Noble is much better in the second act, where Isaac reveals his vulnerabilities, there is not enough contrast to the overbearing bully of the first act. His delivery of Isaac’s zingers is not sharp enough to elicit the shocked laughter they deserve, so Isaac’s involuntary giving way in the second act is not as mournful.

Mr. Baitz’s play has structural problems, without doubt. The second act takes place several years later and is set in Isaac’s apartment. His son Martin appears briefly, but the other two siblings are gone. A new character is introduced, a social worker come to decide on Isaac’s competence. Charlayne Woodard is effective as the social worker Marge Hackett, who it turns out met Isaac during better days, years ago. But it is easy to imagine that you suddenly are at a different play. Still, with skilled actors and good direction, “The Substance of Fire” is riveting theater.

The production at Second Stage is somewhat less than that, but every now and then, the words shine through.

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