The Substance of Fire | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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The Substance of Fire


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Apple Tree Theatre

Just how much you enjoy Apple Tree Theatre's exceedingly well acted production of Jon Robin Baitz's drama The Substance of Fire depends a great deal on whether you can accept its premises. The stockholders of an upscale, family-owned New York publishing house are thrown into bitter conflict when Holocaust survivor Isaac Geldhart decides to publish a six-volume work about Nazi atrocities instead of the titillating contemporary novel his pragmatic, business-minded son Aaron favors. Fearing that his father's out-of-touch, intellectual tastes will bankrupt the company, Aaron persuades his brother Martin, a sickly landscape-architecture professor, and his sister Sarah, a children's-television actress, to turn over to him their shares of company stock so he can wrest control from their father.

Isaac becomes flighty, forgetful, unable to take care of himself. With the publishing house still in dire financial straits, Aaron tries to take over the remainder of Isaac's stock by enlisting a psychiatric social worker to help him get his father declared mentally incompetent. But this insidious enterprise is doomed because Isaac was an old acquaintance of the social worker's deceased ex-husband; she agrees to evaluate Isaac more out of curiosity than out of a desire to have him committed.

Layered atop this rather convoluted plot are more coincidences and hackneyed symbolism. The contemporary novel Isaac rejected happens to be the work of a man with whom Aaron had a clandestine homosexual fling. Isaac, incapable of love because of his wartime experiences, becomes obsessed with Hitler, even to the point of spending far more money than he could ever afford on a Hitler watercolor, which he burns at the end of the play, a symbol suggesting that he's come to terms with his past.

If you can accept all that, as well as an unseemly amount of glib, stagy dialogue, you might be able to fall in love with this play. If not, you're bound to be frustrated.

What's so terribly disappointing about The Substance of Fire is that underneath the belabored metaphors and implausible plot contrivances is an excellent play. The strained relations between the uncompromising and overbearing Isaac and his three fiercely intelligent yet hopelessly lost children are especially well developed. The first half of the first act, when the characters interact without being overwhelmed by plot twists, is the strongest part of the play. And the way they use different approaches to mask their deep-seated pain is so truthfully realized one has the impression this is going to be the next Great American Family Drama. But when we get to the business of choosing sides and hostile takeovers the play's credibility evaporates, as the characters' complexities are reduced to whichever position Baitz wishes them to represent. The second act, most of which is taken up by Isaac's conversation with the social worker, is largely beside the point. It's primarily about Isaac's personal alienation and lacks the multiple perspectives that made the first act so intriguing.

What we're left with is something that closely resembles King Lear rewritten as a story for the New Yorker. A foolish king of a publishing house is pushed out by his thankless children, and he slowly devolves into madness. The end holds out hope for reconciliation as Isaac, his past behind him, agrees to take a walk in the snow with his sweet son Martin (Cordelia?) as the lights fade. We're spared the embarrassment of Martin getting rolled by a mugger in Gramercy Park and Isaac carrying his body and howling.

There's melodrama in this plot, but not a great deal of substance. Too bad, because Apple Tree's production is superb. The cast, directed by the versatile Gary Griffin, finds every nuance of Baitz's play. David Darlow's supremely arrogant Isaac is chillingly believable, and Robert Mammana as Aaron is the perfect combination of sympathetic and oily. This is truly a beautiful production of an intelligent but fatally flawed play.

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