An Early History of Fire, the eagerly anticipated first new play in over a decade by David Rabe, who is best known for gritty, excessively violent dramas like Hurlyburly and Streamers, has unfortunately turned out to be a wimpy letdown. It is being produced Off-Broadway by The New Group, which staged a stunning revival of Hurlyburly back in 2005.
Structured as the kind of nostalgic coming-of-age story you’ve heard countless times before, the long-winded and repetitive play takes a close look at Danny (Theo Stockman), a young college dropout who still lives with his well-meaning, working-class immigrant dad (Gordon Clapp). According to the program notes, they live in a 'medium-sized town in the Midwest” in the summer of 1962.
While there is hardly any plot or external action, the play’s driving point is the arrival of Karen (Claire van der Boom), a rich, well-read college student who insists on showing off her appreciation of J.D. Salinger and pot and declaring that the nightmare of 1950s complacency is over in quite a few long, self-indulgent speeches.
By the end, after Danny has lost Karen and alienated his affectionate, chess-playing German-immigrant father, he finds himself suddenly motivated to be a writer and resolves to win Karen back.
Although Karen’s speeches contain hints of excitement, the play is hopelessly cluttered with extraneous characters. So many characters, in fact, that one was apparently excised during preview performances.
Director Jo Bonney, who is best known for staging Neil LaBute dramas, does her best to elicit some dramatic tension. Stockman, who has previously appeared on Broadway in Hair and American Idiot, convincingly vents his paralyzing frustration. For instance, his character vents his rage at not having a proper suit to meet Karen’s parents for dinner.
Although van der Boom makes a strong, sexy impression as Claire, Lily Rabe, the playwright’s daughter, was originally slated to play the role, but she withdrew to star in the upcoming Shakespeare in the Park revival of As You Like It. Really good choice on her part.