Emily, the hands-on owner of a construction firm in Adam Bock's "A Small Fire," is never more at home than when barking orders to her workers at a building site.
More comfortable reviewing operations with her dedicated construction manager than spending time with either her husband or daughter, she has succeed in a man's world by adopting a blue-collar chumminess and a white-collar ruthlessness.
As portrayed by Lily Knight with a New York accent and an overly blunt demeanor, this pint-size dynamo in a hard hat has a short fuse when it comes to slip-ups and slacking off. A classic Type A personality, she responds to her Blackberry the way Batman reacts to the Bat-Signal — utterly convinced that no one else could handle this latest emergency.
The theater is littered with male characters of this type — myopic, self-assured big shots who are forced to open their eyes and confront their existential frailty after a crisis ambushes them. This pattern is given more than just a gender twist in Bock's small yet resonant drama, now at the Atwater Village Theatre in a potently acted Echo Theater Company production directed by Alana Dietze.
Emily, who wears the pants in her family, will be forced to rely on her husband, John (Michael Mantell), and daughter Jenny (Mackenzie Kyle) after she's afflicted by a mysterious medical condition that begins, innocuously enough, with the loss of her sense of smell. Her inability to smell a small kitchen fire alerts her to a health problem that only grows worse, stripping her of her independence though leaving her bossiness more or less intact.
The writing is sketchy in places, but Bock's elliptical style keeps us on our toes, inviting us to make discoveries about the characters rather than spoon-feeding us insights into their conflicts and shortcomings. The play may be more straightforward than his giddily off-kilter "The Typographer's Dream" and a touch more sentimental than his savage office comedy "The Receptionist," but it earns its emotional payoff in a final scene that is daring in its depiction of carnal intimacy in a mature marriage.
The actors are given the opportunity to flesh out the impressionistic dramatic word through unspoken interaction that is often more revealing than the purposefully flat dialogue. Dietze's staging isn't all that smooth, and there are a few clumsy moments when the play breaks with realism, but she elicits pungent performances from her cast.
Mantell manages to endow John with a quiet strength even when his wife is running roughshod over him. He's obliging but not a wimp. Kyle zeros in on Jenny's agonizing ambivalence toward her mother, whose judgmental nature doesn't exactly soften with illness. Jenny's love is challenged by years of stifled resentment, and Kyle makes the filial frustration and regret real.
Steven O'Mahoney, who plays construction manager Billy (a role assumed by Darrett Sanders at certain performances), brings an outer-borough exactness to a hard-to-pin-down character, who unexpectedly sheds light on the play's embedded gender politics. In Bock's intelligent and open-minded rendering, the old assumptions about masculinity and femininity no longer apply. O'Mahoney is saddled with an awkward speech explaining the source of Billy's personal and professional devotedness to Emily, but his character's reticence is unfailingly eloquent.
But "A Small Fire," which is running in repertory with Jessica Dickey's "Row After Row," really provides a showcase for Knight's fine-grained portrait of a control freak who loses control through the caprice of her mortal body. There's nothing forced about her performance — at times, it doesn't even appear that Knight is acting. She is this queen of the construction zone — and a woman, like many an overconfident protagonist in classic tragedy, who comes to know herself only after losing all that previously set her apart.
Emily's highly symbolic medical anomaly (a spoiler not to be given away in a review) is extreme, but it's surprisingly easy to relate to. When the play is over, you may look at your smartphone — and anything else cutting you off from genuine human connection — as though it were a disease threatening your very existence.
'A Small Fire'
Where: Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village
When: Check theater for schedule. Ends May 31.
Contact: (310) 307-3753; http://www.EchoTheaterCompany.com
Running time: 1 hour, 15 minute