Friday, January 7, 2011

Bock's Best


Pawk and Birney in A Small Fire (photo by Joan Marcus)
A Small Fire
A play by Adam Bock

Directed by Trip Cullum
Starring Reed Birney, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Michele Pawk, Victor Williams

Performances December 16, 2010-January 23, 2011
Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street

A Small Fire is easily Adam Bock’s best play. Both his alcohol-sodden farce The Drunken City and one-note black comedy The Receptionist pale in comparison with this powerful tragic parable about a strong-willed woman’s inexplicable physical disintegration.

We first see Emily, who runs a construction firm, blasting her foreman Billy for apparently shoddy work. A tough-as-nails go-getter with an omnipresent blackberry glued to her ear, Emily is also, as the second scene with her husband John shows, a difficult woman to get along with: she has harsh words for both their daughter Jenny and the man she will soon be marrying.

Then Bock dares the audience to sympathize with Emily as she is by degrees stricken with an unknown malady. First, her sense of smell disappears when she can’t tell that something’s burning in the kitchen: the moment is played light-heartedly as Bock shrewdly keeps us (and his characters) off-guard, and before long she has lost her taste, her sight and her hearing.

Bock’s sterling writing takes the full measure of his complicated protagonist, all while smartly keeping her affliction unexplained. There are tantalizing possibilities: it could be stress from her job and Jenny’s impending wedding, or guilt over her unfair treatment of her loving husband and daughter, or even a psychosomatic reaction. Whichever it is, Bock’s mature dramatic treatment is light years ahead of the frivolous goings-on in The Drunken City and The Receptionist.

Even the playwright’s everyday dialogue sounds fresh and feels authentic, whether it’s John and Jenny discussing wedding reception table sittings, Emily and Billy shooting the shit while at a building site, or John and Billy creating a friendly bond while waiting for Billy’s homing pigeons to finish their race.

Bock has essentially written another shaggy dog stage story, but with a real purpose. The play’s unforgettable final scene, which emphatically demonstrates that Emily retains a needed physical link to her husband, is one of the most touching climaxes to a play ever. When Emily says to her husband, “I’m still in here,” it’s impossible to remain unmoved.

Under Trip Cullum’s sure directorial hand, a quartet of actors superbly enacts these believably flawed characters. Celia Keenan-Bolger plays the emotionally distraught Jenny —she calls herself “a bad daughter” and eventually runs away—with nicely-handled restraint. Victor Williams, who as Billy is all bluster while on the job, excels in a tender scene where the foreman visits Emily after she stops coming to work. Reed Birney terrifically embodies John’s contradictory impulses while attempting to deal with his wife’s unspeakable tragedy. Birney’s always casual bearing—he never appears to be giving a performance—is the most arresting kind of acting there is.

Michele Pawk, of course, has the most difficult assignment: she begins unsympathetically, and then, through Emily’s increasingly painful physical and mental transformation, becomes more understandable to the audience as she unveils her scars. Pawk’s haunting performance is also a heroic bit of naked daring: her chemistry with Birney is palpable, particularly in that final scene, which is as erotic a coupling I’ve seen onstage, and which provides a pitch-perfect play with an emotionally-charged ending.

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