Theo Stockman as Danny Mueller and Gordon Clapp as his Pop, Emil in David Rabe’s “An Early History of Fire.” Photo © Monique Carboni.
Watching things burn has an almost universal fascination.
In “An Early History of Fire,” at The New Group at Theatre Row through May 26th, Danny Mueller (Theo Stockman) and his friends Terry (Jonny Orsini) and Jake (Dennis Staroselsky) have graduated from setting fires on the hillside to blue collar jobs in their small mid-western hometown.
Jake is a disgruntled, misogynistic bully. Terry reflects his sweetness on everyone. “This is a nice town,” he tells Danny, “with nice people in it. Why would you want to leave?” Danny yearns to escape from the town and his Pop, Emil’s, (Gordon Clapp) household where he feels like the family drudge.
Devin Ratray as Benji and Gordon Clapp as Emil in David Rabe’s “An Early History of Fire.” Photo © Monique Carboni.
Emil is a self-aggrandizing narcissist, who is dependent on Danny since he lost his menial job. His ego is buoyed by the mentally challenged Benji (Devin Ratray) who doggedly accompanies in his idleness. Danny rejects his father’s conventional suggestion that he finish college as a way out.
Danny is ambivalent about the rich college girl, Karen Edwards (Claire van der Boom), who fulfils his dreams of aspiration. He is both attracted and repelled by the genteel. Nonetheless, Karen and Danny get each other, even though he is not as simple as she wished when they first met.
Theo Stockman as Danny, Claire van der Boom as Karen, Jonny Orsini as Terry and Dennis Staroselsky as Jake in David Rabe’s “An Early History of Fire.” Photo © Monique Carboni
Karen, apparently an avid reader, quotes Kerouac, Salinger, and a little Ginsberg. She was looking for a bit of Lady Chatterley’s experience with someone with “a strong back and a weak mind,” she says. She is his ticket out even if he is only a diversion for her.
Theo Stockman as Danny, Dennis Staroselsky as Jake, Erin Darke as Shirley, Jonny Orsini as Terry and Claire van der Boom as Karen, in David Rabe’s “An Early History of Fire.” Photo © Monique Carboni
The atmosphere in “An Early History of Fire,” is not especially heated. There are confrontations but their intensity is banked, and they are not full-out battles. The actors all encapsulate the thin distinctions of class in an era in small-town 1960s on the brink of monumental change.
Stockman’s Danny is stolid, stumbling on a path that may give him the future for which he hopes. It’s Staroselsky’s Jake whose character is most combustible, hiding his sense of inferiority and misogyny behind a rakish charm. Gordon Clapp plays an Emil who has a capacity to disappoint anyone who relies on him.
Everyone in the fine cast treats the material in Rabe’s excellent new play tenderly.
For more information and a schedule of performances, visit www.thenewgroup.org