STAGE REVIEW : Dialogue Generates Heat in 'The Substance of Fire'

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

It might be easy to dismiss Jon Robin Baitz's "The Substance of Fire" at the Mark Taper Forum as two one-acts in search of a full-length play. Such a description is not inaccurate, but it fails to take into account the substance of Baitz as a playwright and the fire of Ron Rifkin as an actor.

Rifkin is the embodiment of Baitz's formidable protagonist, the intransigent Isaac Geldhart, a flinty survivor of the Holocaust and principled intellectual whose elitist, New York publishing house has ignored the winds of 20th-Century change. It is plummeting into the red and finds itself a ripe candidate for takeover.

As the curtain goes up, we are in the firm's conference room, meeting Isaac's three grown children. They are principal stockholders and nice enough young Americans, saddled with a father whose unyielding contempt cannot muster a kind word for any of them.

Isaac derides daughter Sarah (Kelly Wolf), an actress in children's TV, as "a hired clown." Younger son Martin (Patrick Breen), a professor of landscape architecture at Vassar, is "Mr. Johnny Appleseed of the Hudson" ("How is the tree-pruning business?").

But Isaac reserves his harshest judgment for his older son Aaron (Jon Tenney), a seething partner in the firm. In order to reverse the company's financial slide, Aaron is desperately trying to get his father to agree to publish something other than the obscure scholarly tomes to which he is so adamantly committed. Aaron, in Dad's view, is a mere "accountant."

Thus Act I is a withering verbal joust between the widowed Isaac and his offspring, in which you have to revile the old man for the devastation he visits on his undeserving children--and admire him for the towering values to which he so forcefully clings. The result is a serious war, without winners, and with casualties on all sides--none greater than Isaac's, even if his wounds are largely self-inflicted.

The second act--or second play--finds Isaac in the book-lined living room of his apartment 3 1/2 years later. All that Aaron had feared might befall the publishing house has occurred. He is now running the firm with Japanese partners and his father has been remanded to the loneliness of his Gramercy Park apartment where, fuming unabated, he is hatching futile plots to regain control.

But Isaac's control of even day-to-day life has been slipping, enough for son Aaron to arrange for a social worker to come by and check on his competency. Martin, "the Neville Chamberlain of sons," is appointed to grease the way as the recalcitrant Isaac, in formal suit and tie, collides with Social Services' Marge Hackett (Gena Rowlands).

This second half of the play is about that collision, and what had started out as a piece about an authority figure and a family tug-of-war becomes a penetrating investigation of self--for Isaac mainly, but for Marge, the catalyst, as well. The synergy of that lengthy, punctuated conversation in the fading light of a snowy day (the hauntingly eloquent set is by John Lee Beatty) is a captivating dance to an almost optimistic ending.

In lesser hands, so much rarefied talk would almost certainly undermine the essence of that active word, play . And, to a degree, the dialogue is static. But the ideas are not. And, as much as possible, director Daniel Sullivan has surrounded the words with a swirl of movement. Baitz's exchanges are cerebral but compelling. And the compact Rifkin--natty, explosive, brittle, centered--is giving a performance that has only grown in richness and power since he created it two years ago at New York's Playwrights Horizons.

Breen and Tenney are the other holdovers from the New York company, giving good and supportive performances in relatively thankless roles. But Wolf, new to the cast, lacks vulnerability as the maligned Sarah. So dispassionate is she in her effort to find a bridge to her father's hard heart that her reasonableness comes across as wimpy rather than earnest.

The powerhouse addition to the local cast is Rowlands' Hackett, not because this is a particularly flashy role, but because it isn't. She proves every bit as adept and magnetic in the straightforward part of an intelligent woman as she has in the flamboyantly emotional ones that have made up most of her film career. Her mercurial presence gives that second half a new, lucid intensity.

Physically, this production is a magnified replica of the one at Playwrights Horizons. All design credits are the same (Beatty, sets; Arden Fingerhut, lights; Scott Lehrer, sound; Jess Goldstein, costumes), providing the right evocative yet unobtrusive context.

The play's inescapably the thing--or the skill with which its chewy ideas are rolled around the stage, dissected and digested.

Added to the quandaries of "Fish Head Soup" at East West Players (in which the Taper has a hand) and Jonathan Tolins' provocative "Twilight of the Golds" in Pasadena, the substance of this "Fire" only stokes a minor and auspicious explosion of profoundly thoughtful plays to light up the Los Angeles area in the first month of 1993.

* "The Substance of Fire," Mark Taper Forum, Music Center , 135 N. Grand Avenue. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays 7:30 p.m.; matinees Saturdays-Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends March 7. $26-$32; (213) 365-3500, TDD (213) 680-4017. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.

Kelly Wolf: Sarah Geldhart

Patrick Breen: Martin Geldhart

Ron Rifkin: Isaac Geldhart

Jon Tenney: Aaron Geldhart

Gena Rowlands: Marge Hackett

A Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper presentation. Director Daniel Sullivan. Playwright Jon Robin Baitz. Sets John Lee Beatty. Lights Arden Fingerhut. Costumes Jess Goldstein. Sound Scott Lehrer. Production stage manager Mary Michele Miner. Stage manager Susie Walsh.

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