Jon Robin Baitz is among the hottest of young New York playwrights, and his talent is apparent in Stages' current production, the Houston premiere of his 1991 Substance of Fire. The play is a precocious and intelligent study of a family in crisis, placed in a larger context of contemporary culture and history. Its structure -- two long conversational scenes masquerading as two acts -- seems arbitrary and static, but what it lacks in narrative drive it partly makes up for in intellectual passion. At its core is a debate about the nature of human life and morality -- and, more sharply, whether such once-exalted notions have a place, any longer, in contemporary American society.
Isaac Geldhart (Jerome Kilty) heads a small, distinguished New York publishing company with a reputation for important works in literature and history, specializing as well in studies of the European Holocaust. The firm has fallen on hard financial times (not surprisingly -- Baitz hits hard at the shallowness of current corporate bookselling), and Geldhart's grown children, who own a potentially controlling interest in the family-held company, want him to attempt to save the business by publishing a trendy, sexy novel with bestseller potential. Act One is devoted to the scathing debate among the family members (Geldhart pulls no punches in belittling his first-generation American children, and they return the favor); Act Two, several years later, considers the effects of his children's defiance upon the now nearly broken patriarch.
As that summary suggests, Baitz has set a Lear-like situation in a contemporary context, and the passionate intensity of the conflict is vividly apparent, if not entirely earned. Although meant to imply a long-established familial battleground, full of scars and echoes, the argument over the book business often seems, frankly, stagey and forced. One suspects that a family with this much venom in it would handle its business by correspondence, if not by proxy. Act Two, in which the distracted Isaac alternately argues with and flirts with a social worker (Carolyn Houston Boone) over his uncertain mental competence, is again intellectually but not emotionally convincing. This is a play about ideas, strongly held and important ideas, in which the holders are only uncertainly and symbolically represented on stage.
That said, Substance of Fire is a striking and lively piece of work by a young writer unafraid to take up big subjects on the stage. Geldhart embodies an Old World notion of hieratic, disciplined culture desperately at sea in a world of relativism and cynical commercialism. But his absolutist moral standards also make it impossible for him to reach out even to those who love him, because he despises them for having learned, in such a world, how to swim. The tenor of this intense family and generational argument is self-consciously literary, and very New York, but its passion and importance will be recognizable to anyone who knows the difference between a Melville and a McInerney.
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Sidney Berger directs the production efficiently and straightforwardly, with only the minimum wasted motion to pump action into the discourse. Distinguished actor and author Jerome Kilty makes an imposing Geldhart, although with a distracting habit of drifting between an eastern European accent and that transatlantic inflection once used in Hollywood films to indicate "posh." Eldest son and company manager Aaron is a restrained and businesslike Brian Broome; Rutherford Cravens does a serviceable job with the morose and sympathetic Martin; and Carolyn Houston Boone is sharp and professional as Marge Hackett, the social worker with a private agenda. Only Gage Tarrant -- as daughter Sarah, who has gone west to become a children's television actress -- seems to have run afoul of poor conception and direction. Her exaggerated intonation and stiff gestures recall nothing so much, in these parts, as an Aggie yell leader in full incitation. A career as the letter "K" indeed seems poor Sarah's doom.