Family trauma plus historical trauma: a tried and true combination, yet so difficult to play. Jon Robin Baitz’s The Substance of Fire — first produced in 1990, now at Second Stage — packs so much grief into a two-hour generational feud that, despite its worthwhile subject matter, the play collapses under its own weight.
Isaac (John Noble) is a serious publisher, printing only important volumes with an emphasis on Holocaust history. So serious is he that his publishing house is near bankruptcy, and over his children’s objections he refuses to resuscitate it by printing a sexy lightweight novel. Shrieking ensues, and long-buried grudges rear their heads. Isaac, we learn, bears the shame of surviving the Nazis when his relatives did not. His children, one by one, confess to deep-seated daddy issues. And in Act Two, the deteriorating Isaac confronts another specter from his past, one with grudges of her own.
Baitz’s subjects have changed in poignant ways since 1990: The book industry is nearer implosion, and far fewer Holocaust survivors remain. But surely there are more inventive, less repetitive ways to explore these subjects: Here, we end up with too much substance and too little fire.