Tony winner David Rabe’s new play An Early History of Fire delivers none of the heat and all of the tedium suggested in the title. The New Group’s Off Broadway production bears some of Rabe’s hallmarks — circular dialogue, macho blustering, drug-induced philosophizing — but lacks the urgency and seething wit of his best work.
The action takes place mostly over a single night in 1962 in a ”medium-sized town in the Midwest.” Recent college dropout Danny (Theo Stockman) is chafing under the rule of his German immigrant father (Gordon Clapp) and hoping to break away from his lifelong buddies who are content with their working-class existence. The late-first-act arrival of Karen (Claire van der Boom), Danny’s wealthy, educated date, brings a welcome explosion of color to the stage — literally, since her bright blue dress pops against the musty living room set designed by Neil Patel, and dramaturgically, since van der Boom lustily attacks her lengthy monologues. Karen awakens Danny to his innermost desires to become a writer, and she introduces him to The Catcher in the Rye and On the Road — not to mention the mind-altering effects of marijuana.
The trifle of a plot is spread thin over 140 minutes, and you might find yourself white knuckling it through the shrill final half hour. Still, amid Danny’s never-ending ”I want…” ramblings, there are shining moments of spot-on dialogue delivered by Jonny Orsini and Dennis Staroselsky as Danny’s childish friends from boyhood. But some of Rabe’s missteps are, frankly, surprising. The scenes featuring Clapp as a grumpy, German-accented widower grind to a halt, and most of the knowing, hindsight-bolstered winks to the period (one character asks, ”How do you think Elvis will die?”) are more likely to elicit eye rolls than laughs. Despite valiant efforts from the mostly young cast, An Early History of Fire never ignites — or even achieves a slow burn. C+
(Tickets: Tickets: thenewgroup.org, 212-239-6200)