It's easy to sense the relevance of Jon Robin Baitz's 1991 two-for-one special The Substance of Fire. In a post-Fifty Shades of Grey world, the first act's main conflict—whether a strapped publishing house should stoop to print a risqué commercial novel—resonates in Trip Cullman's bright revival at Off Broadway's Second Stage Theatre. Unfortunately, two entirely different plays are on display here, linked only by the performance of Fringe's John Noble, who is far better than the material in either one.
In 2011's Other Desert Cities, Baitz showed a flair for familial fireworks. That gift is on satisfactory display in the clever first act, which pits aging book publisher Isaac Geldhart (Noble) against his three adult children in a battle over the future of the family business. Carter Hudson is a firecracker as Aaron, the only Geldhart child to follow Isaac's footsteps and match his passion for power, but he's the only sibling who makes an impression. Halley Feiffer is fine if forgettable as actress Sarah, and Daniel Eric Gold's aloof scholar Martin is inherently less forceful despite Gold's best efforts and a late-act character revelation that feels more shoehorned-in than significant.
Act 2 picks up three and a half years later—gone are the excitable arguments about literature and financial risks, replaced by a muted visit by a social worker (a winsome Charlayne Woodard) to evaluate Isaac's ability to live on his own. The drearier second act never comes close to the zippy momentum Cullman builds in the first, but thankfully Noble makes the best of a more retrospective Isaac, who begins to show cracks in his stoicism. The entire production belongs to Noble, who imbues his fading Holocaust survivor with the whole red-hot spectrum: He masterfully switches between simmering coals—Isaac's silences often say more than his shouting—and full-blown inferno. If the play ultimately fails to light up, at least Noble's nuanced performance emerges as the substance that truly ignites. B–(Tickets: 2st.com)