In the margins of ‘Catcher in the Rye,’ David Rabe writes a gut-wrenching play

Theo Stockman and Clair van der Boom. (Monique Carboni.)
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If you have a dog-eared copy of Catcher in the Rye on your shelf somewhere, you'll recognize the themes of loneliness and alienation running through David Rabe's thought-provoking new play An Early History of Fire.

And just in case you don't, Rabe's play provides the dramatic equivalent of a study guide.

When working-class stiff Danny recounts to his buddies how me met a pretty college student named Karen, he mentions that she was at a bus stop reading Catcher in the Rye. The title draws blank stares from Jake and Terry, and even Danny, who never finished college, has to buy a copy to figure out what this book is all about and why Karen finds it so engrossing.

Danny doesn't have to wait long, because when Karen comes back to his house after the two have dinner with her parents, she admits to being one of J.D. Salinger's "adolescent and fanatical" followers. Trouble is, Salinger hasn't given them a lot to work with. It's 1962, and in the 11 years since his groundbreaking novel he's only managed to produce a handful of short stories and a novella. (Karen would be devastated to know that a year later her prophet would stop publishing altogether.)

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Danny doesn't understand everything about the book, but he identifies strongly with Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of Catcher in the Rye. He's bored and restless, eager to break free from his menial job and his stifling relationship with his blowhard father, but he only has the vaguest idea of how to move forward. As a child he dreamed of sailing, then scuba diving: an unlikely means of escape for a kid from a Midwestern town. "It was just this stupid hobby from when I was little," Danny admits to Karen. "It was a daydream—a lot of hot air." But as it turns out, it's a daydream he's never really let go of.

Many elements of Catcher in the Rye reappear in An Early History of Fire—visions of falling off cliffs, fistfights between friends, tense relationships with mentally ill siblings—but Rabe has reshuffled the deck. Different things register more or less significantly than in the novel because Danny is not exactly Holden Caulfield. He's from humbler circumstances, for one thing, so breaking away isn't quite so easy. And he'd be a bit too old to be rebelling in Caulfield's—he's somewhere in his early twentie—which makes his yearnings all the more urgent.

Danny's friends Jake and Terry used to indulge his fantasies, but now they're taking it personally. They're wary about his desire to date a "rich bitch from on top of a hill," seeing it as an indictment of their decision to stay where they are. Hot-headed Jake lashes out at Danny, while Terry retreats into self-pity. "We got a nice town full of nice people, doing nice things," complains Terry. "Why are you always thinking you gotta leave?

In his passive-aggressive way, Danny's father also tries to sabotage his son's plans. He forgets to pick up Danny's only suit at the dry cleaner and walks in on Danny and Karen when he knows they want to be alone. Pop, who fled Germany when the Nazis came to power, knows the impulse to run. But when it comes to Danny and Karen, the widower admits to his friend Benji that "deep in the heart" he can't help but "hate them a little."

If Danny sees Karen as his ticket out, Karen has other ideas. As fond as she is of Salinger's work, it isn't enough for her. (The character she most identifies with in Catcher is Holden's sister Phoebe, who makes a relatively brief appearance.) She's moved on to other works, specifically Lady Chatterly's Lover. She's excited by the idea of an affair with a working-class man, "somebody simple," as she puts it, but is frustrated that Danny looks the part but wants to discuss literature.

Anybody familiar with the cynicism of Rabe's Hurlyburly might be surprised by his more sentimental side. Set comfortably in the past—the years around 1960 seems to be in vouge lately on the New York stage: think of Clybourne Park and The Columnist —it's imbued with more than a touch of nostalgia. But An Early History of Fire is gut-wrenching because it takes place in an era that many audience members remember well. We know what these characters want (maybe wanted some of the same things for ourselves), but we also realize how unlikely it is that their dreams would be fulfilled.

Director Jo Bonney proves a perfect interpreter for Rabe's work, which is seeing its world premiere by the New Group. In a play that might have been all about the boys, she knows when to shift the spotlight to Karen (Claire van der Boom, beautiful and slightly dangerous in a role that was originally announced for Rabe's daughter Lily) and Terry's ex-girlfriend Shirley (Erin Darke, who makes a big impression with a small role).

I liked the barely buried anger of Dennis Staroselsky's Jake and the childlike wonder of Jonny Orsini's Terry. But the play revolves around the tightly wound Danny, and the subtle and moving Theo Stockman doesn't disappoint. It's not a showy performance, but it's one that rings true. When his character reveals what moved him about Catcher in the Rye, Stockman makes it seem anything but academic.

An Early History of Fire is playing at Acorn Theatre in Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, between 9th and 10th Avenues. Tickets are available at 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com.