Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Small Fire

"A Small Fire" at Playwrights Horizons, December 21, 2010

Adam Bock returns to Playwrights Horizons' main stage with this story of a callous construction contractor as she deals with unexplained health issues.  Emily (Michelle Pawk) thrives in the rough and tumble world of commercial construction.  She seems most comfortable with her employee Billy (Victor Williams).  Her connection with her husband, John (Reed Birney) has reached a working balance of love and dysfunction, but the same can't be said for her soon-to-be-married daughter Jenny (Celia Keenan-Bolger).  A prophetic "We'll work it out." repeats over and over on the presumption that there's always time to resolve issues and difficulties.

Mr. Bock's story begins an interesting exploration of connection and senses, but much of the message feels forced.  The detachment he imbues in Emily comes across as pretty harsh.  As Emily's sensory factors diminish, John's intensify.  Jenny, already feeling estranged over Emily's disparaging comments about her fiance', pulls further away as Emily's ability to interact declines.  Mr. Bock has missed an opportunity to really explore the issue of role-reversal that many children face, trying to help aging parents manage their lives.  There's a brief mention of it, but it's quickly tossed aside.

Ms. Pawk, remarkably talented, never really inhabits Emily's tough shell.  Part of her struggle is in the writing, but the other part is a feeling she is miscast in this role.  Mr. Birney gets the best of this play, exemplified in a monologue during the wedding reception as he describes the action and images for his now-blind wife.  The joyous picture he paints is touching and heart-breaking.

Director Trip Cullman facilitates some compelling moments, but seems constrained by some elements,  the sub-plot of Billy's competitive homing pigeons and a gratuitous sexual interaction between Emily and John.  Many might describe Ms. Pawk as "brave" for the partial nudity, but I found it more sensational than plot-driven.

Loy Arcenas has created an excellent set, conveying the temporary sense of life with unfinished drywall elements, nicely complemented by David Weiner's lighting.

A Small Fire runs through January 23, 2011.  Check here for discount ticket information.

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