Watching Adam Bock’s new play, A Small Fire (Playwrights Horizons), I almost felt that he had written it to prove my often-repeated contention that we have, in New York, the best actors in the world. A Small Fire is a small play, tightly focused and written close to the vest, but its small virtues are numerous and meaningful; in retrospect, they begin to loom very large. And chief among those virtues is the daring that Bock’s quiet, four-character, 80-minute play demands of its actors.
I don’t mean that A Small Fire is full of dangerous aerial stunts: The theater can offer artists many different kinds of challenges. To perceive the difficulty of the tasks Bock sets his four actors—two merely first-rate, and two utterly sublime—you probably need some experience of actor-training, of rehearsal, of seeing how easily, in theater, the tiniest thing can go wrong, and how the tiniest thing that goes wrong can throw everything else out of true.
In a key scene of A Small Fire, Bock’s main characters, Emily (Michele Pawk) and John (Reed Birney), appear to be sitting quietly while an unseen wedding reception swirls around them. The diction is modest, naturalistic, and everyday; the tone is colloquial, kept from casualness only by the ceremonial nature of the event. And at more than one point in this seemingly harmless scene, Bock’s script asks each of these sublime actors to do something that’s roughly the equivalent, in emotional weight, of launching a nuclear warhead while behaving as if they were out for a casual stroll. The ease with which Pawk and Birney play through these detonator moments—never underscoring, never overstating, giving each significant twist full power and yet making it seem a wholly natural next step—far outclasses all the gushy adjectives people apply to great acting. Let’s call it great acting and leave it at that.
Despite the script’s deceptively quiet tone, Pawk and Birney need to draw on the resources of greatness because the demands Bock’s story lays on them can’t be dodged or faked without reducing the play to a trivial anecdote. It only takes on meaning if the audience can fully trust the actors who animate it. John and Emily are a comfortably off Connecticut couple with a lifestyle that would have seemed outré or topsy-turvy half a century ago. He, not exactly a househusband, has a white-collar desk job (we never learn precisely what it is) but seems to focus most of his interest on domestic comfort. She, in contrast, runs a small construction firm and apparently runs it well: We first see her not at home but in a hardhat, laughing easily with her African-American foreman (Victor Williams) and managing well with the unseen crews who report in via cell phone. The parents of a grown daughter, Jenny (Celia Keenan-Bolger), who’s about to be married, John and Emily have apparently evolved a relationship that contains little remaining sexual charge but lots of residual affection. All signs point to golden years ahead.
Then comes, abruptly, an incident involving a small fire. An unexpected plague is found to have descended on Emily. Other reviews may have already given away some of Bock’s cunningly placed shocks, but I’d like to resist that temptation. I’ll simply say that Emily is afflicted by anosmia (you’ll never bother to look it up), and that when this trivial but potentially dangerous annoyance is quickly followed by ageusia, you know that the couple is in for a seriously bad time.
How they struggle to cope with it as it worsens, finally achieving at least a tentative, temporary victory—that and no more is A Small Fire‘s substance. Though minute in its ambitions, it rings true with the lasting exactitude of a perfectly carved miniature. Bock notches in one slightly over-convenient element, a revelation by Emily’s foreman, which Williams handles feelingly, with elegant discretion. Trip Cullman, directing, must deserve at least partial credit for such uniformly high-quality acting. To my taste, he sometimes lingers over his between-scenes transitions a little too fancily for this stark text, but to say so is like quibbling about the place cards at an otherwise unforgettable banquet.