Thursday, January 06, 2011

Review: A Small Fire at Playwrights Horizons

I feel I should prepare you if you are going to see Adam Bock's A Small Fire at Playwrights Horizons (through January 23). Parts of it are upsetting and uncomfortable to watch. But it's a play that will make you think and is sure to stay with you.

Emily Bridges (Michele Pawk) is a contractor whose strongest relationship is with her foreman Billy (Victor Williams) rather than her daughter Jenny (Celia Keenan-Bolger) or husband John (Reed Birney). She is in the middle of planning Jenny's wedding when she loses her sense of smell and slowly, the rest of her senses. Bock writes realistically awkward dialogue between the family members. Though Jenny wants to help her mom, the anger she feels for her doesn't just go away. This is a play about family, and the simplicity of it is such that the intensity of the final moments sneaks up on you.

There are some unanswered questions. The reason for Emily's condition is never stated and only one trip to the doctor is mentioned. It seems odd that Emily wouldn't try harder to explore treatment and so quickly accepts staying home all day. Personally, I would have liked to meet Jenny's fiance, who we hear so much about. Still, these issues are almost forgotten by the end. It isn't giving anything away to say that Bock's ending is perfect for this play and Trip Cullman stages it beautifully.

This another flawless ensemble from Playwrights Horizons. In lesser hands, the play would not have the impact that it does. Birney was part of last year's triumph, Circle Mirror Transformation, and here he delivers another heartbreaking performance. Williams often lightens the mood with comic relief, but he also nails a scene that could have easily been sappy and cliche. Keenan-Bolger broke away from her innocent image in Bachelorette this summer and here she again proves her versatility playing a hard character. And then there is Pawk, who manages to keep her performance from going into caricature. Her final line moved me to tears.

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