John Noble, Halley Feiffer, Daniel Eric Gold, and Carter Hudson in Jon Robin Baitz’s The Substance of Fire.” | CAROL ROSEGG
When it first premiered Off Broadway in 1991, “The Substance of Fire” was a critical hit and put playwright Jon Robin Baitz firmly on the theatrical map. The volatile story of a despicable patriarch and his squabbling adult children (one played by Sarah Jessica Parker) vying for control of the family publishing house dealt with complex issues of loyalty, pride, and virtue.
And now the Second Stage Theatre has revived the fraught drama, and under the assured direction of Trip Cullman (“Some Men,” “Choir Boy”), it has lost little of its potency.
Which is saying a lot, considering the world of publishing today would be unrecognizable to the characters in this play. In an increasingly splintered industry, where Amazon and e-readers dominate and buying a hardcover book in a store seems almost quaint, the work feels dated, but not overly so.
Revival of early Jon Robin Baitz play is ablaze with vitality
At the play’s center is Isaac Geldhart (John Noble), a Holocaust survivor who has always been proud of his firm’s meticulously rendered highbrow titles like “Water on Fire: An Oral History of the Children of Hiroshima.”
The year is 1987, just before the stock crash, and Isaac is meeting in his cozy book-lined offices (nicely evoked by Anna Louizos) to discuss the future of the company, which is on the brink of bankruptcy. This is clearly a fractured family — he often addresses his children, also influential shareholders, as “you people.”
Since his wife died a couple of years before, Isaac has become more pigheaded and less sensitive to the financial realities of being a boutique publisher in New York. His perturbed son Aaron (Carter Hudson), in charge of the business side of things, insists they sign on a racy, commercially viable novel in the vein of Jay McInerney or Tama Janowitz rather than the usual “ossified old academic frauds” to help turn things around. Isaac goes ballistic.
Sarah (Halley Feiffer), who escaped to LA to become an actor on a children’s educational TV show, still seeks her father’s approval even while claiming she hates to read. Isaac calls her a “clown for hire.”
Perhaps the most damaged is eldest son Martin (Daniel Eric Gold), a fretful, alcoholic professor of landscape design at Vassar. Isaac calls him a gardener.
Watching them grapple for control of the company — and with their familial demons — is harrowing indeed.
Act II finds an exiled Isaac three years later, in the Gramercy Park apartment where the children were raised, strapped for cash and showing signs of dementia. When a psychiatric social worker (a vibrant Charlayne Woodard) comes to check on him, the story careens into a strange new direction. It feels like an entirely different play and many of the meaty conflicts from the first act are awkwardly abandoned.
While all the performances are accomplished, it’s Noble’s portrayal that’s truly striking. At first his Isaac is a monster — advancing age has made him bitter and superior, underscored by a clipped, guttural middle European accent. Yet as the play progresses, he softens, allowing us to see glimmers of humor and begin to understand how the horrors of losing his family during the Nazi invasion have made him cling so fiercely to his personal “fire,” the virtually lost art of publishing fine books.
“The Substance of Fire” does indeed take on a host of substantive ideas, though perhaps not as fully formed as those presented in Baitz’s other family-feud drama, the critically acclaimed 2011 “Other Desert Cities.” Foremost is Isaac’s fear of the young, collapsing traditional values, and art’s corruption by commerce.
There is even a subtle nod to the AIDS crisis. Aaron, once married, is now dating men and Isaac, in a rare moment of warmth, hopes he is being “safe.” It may be Martin, though, who is in real trouble, stricken with a pneumatic cough that could prove more dangerous than any toxic insult hurled by his father.
“That’s the American seduction, isn’t it?” Isaac observes. “Not a thing matters here, it’s all disposable. Forget your history, forget what you believed in, forget your fire.”
In this top-notch revival, we witness this survivor’s “fire” slowly being extinguished, no matter how hard he fights it. It is perhaps even more painful to watch now than when the drama premiered more than two decades ago.
THE SUBSTANCE OF FIRE | Second Stage Theatre | 305 W. 43rd St. | Tue. at 7 p.m.; Wed.–Sat. at 8 p.m. | Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $75; 2ST.com or 212-242-4422 | Two hrs., five min., with intermission