Garbled Themes Dampen 'The Substance of Fire'

Jon Robin Baitz's "The Substance of Fire" is a disjointed drama about a publisher of academic and often arcane works whose life is unraveling. In this well-acted production at Theatre 40, Felicity Nove's set design is dominated by sturdy bookshelves filled with weighty tomes, aptly representing a man who has a more loving relationship with books than with his children.

Isaac (Joseph Ruskin) is a hard, humorless man who has been publishing profitless books. His sons, Aaron (Scott Donovan) and Martin (Michael Bonnabel), join forces to save the company by printing a trashy novel. Their sister, Sarah (Cynthia Gravinese), holds the swing vote. During the negotiations, Isaac becomes estranged from his children.

Three years later, Isaac is alone in a Gramercy Park apartment, having one too many senior moments. Aaron has called in a social worker (Katherine Henryk), but it's Martin who attempts to help his father.

Baitz's work reads like two separate plays--one is a grim testimony about the divisiveness of family businesses and mixed loyalties and the other about the indignities of encroaching senility. Thematically, despite the presence of two characters from the first act, the second act doesn't neatly tie in.

In Baitz's screenplay, Isaac's loyal secretary serves as a witness to his growing incompetence and the significance of social worker is downplayed, creating a better bridge between the two halves.

Under the direction of Beverly Olevin, Ruskin's irascible father is too unsympathetic but he does show the fissures of uncertainty in a once-proud man as he realizes his growing mental feebleness. The actors convincingly inhabit the small nuances of a family in discord.

But Olevin can't illuminate what isn't there--the significance of Isaac's past and how this affects his inability to embrace his children.

* "The Substance of Fire," Theatre 40, Beverly Hills High School campus, 241 Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Aug. 12. $15-$18. (323) 936-5842. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

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