Pyromaniacs, at ease: No firefighters actually appear in Tommy Smith’s new play “Firemen,” in a world premiere by the formerly nomadic Echo Theater Company in its new home, Atwater Village Theatre. There are a few references to an offstage character said to be a fireman, but otherwise the flames in this black comedy are all metaphorical.
Playwright Smith, evidently a provocateur, makes a counterintuitive attempt to frame a grown woman’s exploitative affair with a middle-school student as a tender love story.
That he almost succeeds in this unsavory experiment is a testament to both Chris Fields’ sensitively calibrated, drily witty direction and the cast’s brave and occasionally astonishing performances.
Surly, pre-teen Ben (the talented, appropriately baby-faced Ian Bamberg) has been sent to detention for writing mash notes to Miss Keever, the school secretary. He’s stuck there with the irascible Mr. Gary (a charmingly weird turn by Michael McColl), until Miss Keever herself (Rebecca Gray, no relation to this writer) pops in to offer doughnuts. She bathes Ben in such maternal approval and encouragement that he seeks her out in her office after everyone has gone home.
In their ensuing conversation—desultory chatter that grows charged with innuendo in agonizing increments—Gray fearlessly, persuasively embodies a wily predator grooming her prey. It’s a masterful, mesmerizing scene.
What follows is, perhaps inevitably, a letdown. Once in the bedroom, the two lose all their heat, trading generic anecdotes. We are asked to spend more time than we might like with Ben’s mother, Annie (the entertaining Amanda Saunders), a well-meaning, underwritten neurotic. In an excruciating sequence, while babysitting Miss Keever’s son, Kyle (Zach Callison), Ben treats the younger boy with brutal cruelty. The jarring incident is never satisfactorily integrated into Ben and Miss Keever’s story.
Smith has gift for exposing dark truths with seemingly superficial dialogue; his take on middle age as a developmental stage rivaling adolescence in its confusion seems right on the money. And although “Firemen”’s puzzling message is likely to leave the audience cold, it would be a shame to pass up this opportunity to be seduced by Rebecca Gray.
“Firemen.” Atwater Village Theatre. 3269 Casitas Avenue, Atwater Village. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 16. $25. Contact: (310) 307-3753 or www.EchoTheaterCompany.com. Running time: 2 hours.