Some theater companies favor certain kinds of sets: well-appointed parlors, say, or barren wastelands or classical porticoes. But the New Group has long preferred the siren call of the working-class interior, appalling wallpaper and all. Chances are that artistic director Scott Elliott added David Rabe’s An Early History of Fire to the spring schedule as soon as he read the stage direction on the script’s first page that calls for a Castro convertible sofa bed.
An Early History of Fire, directed by Jo Bonney, represents a step backward for Rabe, dramaturgically and temporally, too. Set in the fall of 1962 in a Midwestern town, it concerns Danny (Theo Stockman), a restless college dropout recently enamored of a rich coed, Karen (Claire van der Boom). Frustrated by his out-of-work immigrant father (Gordon Clapp, attempting a German accent) and increasingly estranged from his boyhood pals, he finds some solace in Karen and the novels she prescribes, The Catcher in the Rye and On the Road.
This is a slight play, with an ending so predictable you could set your watch by it, provided anyone set watches anymore. I’m not a gambling woman, but I’d bet a few small bills that there’s a fair amount of autobiographical content here. Otherwise it’s difficult to discern what drew Rabe to the material or why he persevered with it. Much of the writing is lazy—Danny’s fights with his father, the way the novels stand-in for cultural change—and yet there are strong passages, too, particularly those between Danny and his friends. Rabe has always had a fine ear for how men talk in the absence of women, and these conversations are a highlight, as is a drunk scene, nicely staged by Bonney, that starts sweet and turns sour. But to introduce “fire” into your play title (in a New Group season that also included Burning) is to promise much more in the way of light and heat and flame.