When Jon Robin Baitz’s play, The Substance of Fire, opened at Playwrights Horizons in 1991, the central performance of Ron Rifkin as Isaac Geldhart, the head of a privately owned publishing company holding on to his integrity by publishing elitist books read by a handful of people, seemed so remarkable that he won three major acting awards. However, in 2014 willfully running one’s company into bankruptcy by continuing to publish books no one wants to read, particularly in the currently shrinking book industry, does not seem so admirable. Now the burning question is whether electronic books will destroy print altogether. While Rifkin showed the complicated man under the gruff exterior, Australian star John Noble making his Off Broadway debut has made Geldhart simply an arrogant bully who won’t listen to reason. Despite Trip Cullman’s elegant revival of The Substance of Fire for The Second Stage, the play appears to have become a period piece and to have dated badly as progress may have made its point moot.
The first act takes place in 1987 in the conference room of Kreeger/Geldhart Publishers, a small independently owned firm that Isaac inherited from his father-in-law. For his spring list, Eastern European-born Isaac, obsessed with the Holocaust, plans to publish Louis Fuchold’s six volumes on Nazi medical experiments and not much else, after years of publishing books with a very small readership. His oldest son Aaron, with an MBA from the Wharton School of Economics, has recently been brought on as Vice President and chief financial officer. Aware that the firm is on the verge of bankruptcy, he has acquired the ironically titled Rising Tide, a sexually frank contemporary novel that has best seller written all over it. Isaac thinks the book is trash and is adamant about not adding it to their list. However, the firm has not had a best seller in seven years and this book will keep them solvent for the time being.
In order to bring the matter to a head, a meeting has been called of the family shareholders: daughter Sarah, an actress in children’s television, with 15%; oldest son Martin, an associate professor of landscape architecture at Vassar with 25%; and Aaron with 20%, leaving their father as the single largest stockholder with his 40%. While superior and arrogant Isaac expects his other children to fall into line behind him and back him up against Aaron’s demands, it turns out that Martin likes the novel and Sarah just wants everyone to be amicable so that she can get back to Los Angeles. Recalling that the house was started “to publish serious work that was valuable in the larger world,” Isaac begins to panic as he sees himself losing ground on the issues of integrity and literary merits. He begins bullying his children while his real feelings of contempt for them rise to the surface: to him Aaron is just an “accountant,” Martin is only a “gardener’s apprentice,” and Sarah is no better than a “clown for hire for children’s birthday parties.”
The title of the play is a metaphor for integrity. As a last ditch effort to win over his daughter, European-born Isaac denounces America for the crassness of its culture: “Forget your history, forget what you believe in, forget your fire. … Leave your fire at the door.” However, Isaac is not as unassailable as he would have us believe: he is a Holocaust refugee who was not a Holocaust victim and as Sarah points out there is a difference. Martin and Sarah are eventually required to take sides in an internecine battle not of their own choosing.
The second act which is quite different takes place three and a half years later in Isaac’s Gramercy Park apartment where he appears to be losing his memory as he plots to sell his valuable collections in order to take over total control of the company. He is awaiting a visit from Marge Hackett, a psychiatric social worker who has been called in to examine Isaac for his competency. As Isaac slips in and out of reality, we are never certain as to whether this is a new cat and mouse game he is playing or whether he is in the first stages of dementia. To complicate the situation, Isaac and Marge have met before and Marge also has a secret of her own. The battle lines are drawn for yet another civilized duel of wits.
Noble makes the same mistake that Tyne Daly has made in Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons. Rather than show us what makes difficult people sympathetic and what is underneath their cold exteriors, both performers make their characters into monsters for too long before showing us their other side. Noble gives a big performance but he never becomes the hero of his own story, rather in 2014 Isaac appears to be its villain. Carter Hudson as his Vice President and oldest son does not seem big enough to take on his father even though he has the more convincing argument. Not that he makes Aaron weak but he behaves more like an underling than an equal.
Halley Feiffer’s Sarah is amusing but she seems a lightweight in a family of giants. Daniel Eric Gold’s Martin is more problematic. In the first half of the play, his own personal relationship with his father takes precedence. The Martin we meet in the second half three and a half years later seems to be a different person. Charlayne Woodard as the social worker who shows up in the second act with her sparkling personality is a breath of fresh air. Not only is she up to the job of battling Isaac, she sees right through him. This makes the second half a battle of equals. On the other hand, in the role of Marge originally played by Maria Tucci, a white actress, there is the suspicious feeling from all the other evidence in the play that Isaac is probably a racist but the play as written never deals with this issue.
The design team has all been on the same page for this cultured and sophisticated play. Anna Louizos has designed two elegant and tasteful settings for first the conference room and later for the Gramercy Park living room with its impressive view of Manhattan. The chic clothes for these refined professionals are by Emily Rebholz. Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting design is suitably appropriate for the first act conference scene, while the huge picture windows of the Gramercy Park residence allow him to segue from afternoon light on a snowy day to dusk to twilight in the course of the second act.
Jon Robin Baitz writes literate, thoughtful plays like his 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist, Other Desert Cities. However, like the revival last fall of his earliest play The Film Society showed, plays may date badly or their attitudes become artifacts of another generation. Trip Cullman’s graceful and stylish production of The Substance of Fire does not solve the problems that the play now raises for an audience, while John Noble’s performance may be impressive but shifts the delicate balance that is at its moral center.
The Substance of Fire (through May 25, 2014)
The Second Stage
Tony Kiser Theatre, 305 W. 43rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets call, 212-246-4422 or visit http://www.2ST.com
Running time: two hours and five minutes including one intermission