Generating heat

The Substance of Fire

Jan Ahders and Edward Claudio, in a burning moment from <i>The Substance of Fire</i>.

Jan Ahders and Edward Claudio, in a burning moment from The Substance of Fire.

Rated 4.0

Director Aram Kouyoumdjian notches another success with this drama, which is both a family tragedy and a perceptive critique on the fleeting nature of success.

The first half, which is a little slow generating momentum, deals with once-powerful book publisher Isaac Geldhart and his children. The firm hasn’t had a bestseller in years—Geldhart, as he’s grown older, has focused more and more on scholarly tomes about the Holocaust that generate minimal sales. As the play opens, he’s being challenged for control of the company by his children. It’s a full-course serving of stubborn personalities and family politics—a dictatorial and manipulative father who will brook no interference, a frustrated son who’s watched his dad take the business into bankruptcy, a daughter who’s gone off to Hollywood and become an actress in a children’s TV show, and another son who’s caught in the crossfire as a would-be peacemaker.

The second half is set three-and-a-half years later, and involves a long dialogue between the elder Geldhart (by now a virtually penniless recluse at the edge of senility) and a visiting social worker who—as it turns out—has a connection to Geldhart’s glory days as a prominent socialite, and has likewise experienced tremendous personal disappointments in the years since.

The show is remarkably well cast, with John David a particular standout as the son who tries to bring reconciliation out of the wreckage. Michelle Armstrong and Jason Patrick are also good picks as daughter and son.

But the show is dominated by local veterans Ed Claudio and Jan Ahders, who work up a wonderful exchange, tinged with reflection and regret, in the play’s second half. Claudio and Ahders have done fine work before (including a production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters five years ago) and it’s a treat to see them together again. Claudio, in particular, has been acting up a storm over the last year or so, and this role is another in a string of admirable dramatic performances.

The script (by Jon Robin Baitz) is chock full of intellectual and literary references. There are a few awkward passages—at times, he might do better to go with a more intuitive approach. But there’s lots of substance to The Substance of Fire, which more than compensates for the playwright’s sometimes deliberate design.

Production values are low key but adequate. Strong acting, intelligent direction and the brainy script carry the day.