2:18 pm Jan. 7, 2011
About halfway through Adam Bock’s A Small Fire, a middle-aged woman suddenly goes deaf during her daughter’s wedding reception. Her husband rushes to her side, and realizes there’s been a transformation in himself as well. He can hear everything with amazing clarity—not just the clinking cutlery and boisterous conversations inside the hall, but even the soft twittering of birds outside.
It’s not often that the first thing to praise about a production is the sound design, but Robert Kaplowitz (who also penned the play’s lovely original music) clearly knows his stuff. The near-constant ambient noise— blasts of construction equipment to the hum of traffic—subtly underscores how much we hear, and how little we actually listen to, in our daily lives. It’s an integral part of this drama about a woman who loses her hearing and, one by one, her other senses.
If only Bock’s work were nearly as effective. His play is mostly a misfire, little more than a character sketch of a group of sketchy characters. At the center is Emily (Michele Pawk), the tough-as-nails owner of a construction company. When her husband dismisses her misgivings about their daughter’s upcoming marriage, she begins to take leave of her senses. (Whether the problem is medical or psychological is never clear, as Emily rarely consults doctor, even when she eventually goes blind. This course of action doesn’t occur to anyone else in the play, either.)
Does that description seem one-dimensional? It's only because the character is. The rest, in fact, are so lightly drawn that they can be described in a word or two. Emily’s husband John (Reed Birney) is endlessly patient, while her daughter Jenny (Celia Keenan-Bolger) is petulant and self-centered. Only Emily’s foreman, the wise and wise-cracking Billy (Victor Williams) is rendered with any originality, although the traits that make him distinctive—he is gay and raises racing pigeons—seem tossed in a hat and picked out at random.
Williams, who provides some funny moments in what is otherwise a deadly serious show, is unfortunately saddled with a late-in-the-game monologue about his former lover dying of AIDS. (Believe it or not, the tale is told to cheer up John.) It is such a generic tale of loss, lacking in any details that would make it believable, that it packs no emotional wallop whatsoever.
Pawk, one of the most versatile actors in New York, struggles to bring Emily to life. It’s a losing battle, as nothing about her rings true. Would a woman who had started her own successful company retreat to her couch, smiling vaguely into the distance, when her daughter's marriage looks unfavorable? Would she really rely on others to lead her to the bathroom? Bock might be trying to make a point here, but as with the rest of A Small Fire, it never really catches.
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