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NY1 Theater Review: 'The Substance of Fire'

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"The Substance of Fire" is an early work from Jon Robin Baitz, the playwright who brought us the Tony nominated "Other Desert Cities" a few seasons back. Second Stage Theatre recently debuted a new production of "The Substance of Fire," and NY1's Roma Torre filed the following review.

With a title like "The Substance Of Fire," you'd expect a heated drama, but Jon Robin Baitz's 23-year-old play doesn't raise the dramatic temperature all that high. Still, it's an intelligent work and well-acted. And if it feels rather dated, it makes for an intriguing character study.

Act one introduces us to the Geldhart family. The three siblings are gathering to discuss their father's book business. It's 1987. long before Kindle, ebooks and social media took a lethal bite out of the publishing industry.

At issue is control of the company, which father Isaac, a German holocaust survivor, insists should remain committed to publishing high-minded books of social and historic significance.

Son Aaron sees bankruptcy ahead, and he insists they focus on more popular literature, a genre that the unyielding Isaac despises. His relationship with the children is nothing less than combative and belittling, and they're at a complete loss how to deal with him.

Act two finds Isaac some three years later, alone in his Manhattan apartment showing signs of dementia. A social worker, expertly performed by Charlayne Woodard, arrives to determine his competency. But by the end, there's disappointingly little resolution to this family conflict.

On the other hand, the characters come through loud and clear, and that's both a testament to Baitz's articulate crafting and Trip Cullman's steady hand as director.

On Anna Louizos' handsome sets, Halley Feiffer, Carter Hudson and Daniel Eric Gold fill their parts with compelling urgency, and John Noble is so strong in the role, he actually manages to make this ogre of a father a somewhat sympathetic being.

Jon Robin Baitz is a smart writer, and even though the play is far from perfect, he's loaded it with the kind of nuance and personality detail more typically found in a good read.

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