There’s a wave of nostalgia flooding Broadway, Hollywood and television these days. Remembrance of things past in America at the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s, began of late with AMC’s Mad Men. It seemed to unleash a yearning for that era, and anyone who can remember it has something to say. David Rabe has brought the nostalgia boom to Off Broadway in his new play An Early History of Fire, presented by the New Group at the Acorn Theatre. Set in a small Midwestern town in 1962, the play explores what happens when the winds of change blow in, in the shape of a young woman back on vacation from college out east.
Danny, a young man of limited means and prospects, here played with intensity by Theo Stockman, is consumed with 1960s existential angst and 1950s social angst after he meets Karen, a university student whose family lives on the right side of the tracks. The play opens as he frets over the suit he will wear to dinner with her family. He needs his father, an unemployed German immigrant brought deftly to life by Gordon Clapp, to get the suit cleaned. Danny’s gang of childhood friends arrives, the Elvis-loving embodiments of an America about to disappear. Inevitably, the suit, the dinner, the date, and the ties with the past don’t exactly work out right.
Along the way, however, we are treated to an exploration of what made 1962 a turning point. President Kennedy is still alive, the geography of Vietnam has yet to implant itself in everyone’s psyche and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is shaking up its first generation of readers. (Top tip: You’ll be glad if you’ve recently reread this book before you see this play).
The much-anticipated Karen doesn’t arrive until the third scene. Claire van der Boom, an Australian making her off-Broadway debut, conveys the inherent danger of the pot-smoking, Kerouac-quoting Karen for Danny. But physically she seems just too skinny and frenetic to give the part its authentic period detail. Her looks are one of a few irritating anachronisms that have crept into the production – childproof caps on a plastic aspirin bottle being another. But van der Boom gamely deals with her wordy part in which she earnestly relives what happened when her entire college dorm read The Catcher in the Rye and then Franny and Zooey. It is funny but not many people laughed. More humor ensues when she hands around a joint and Danny and his small-town friends get stoned for the first time. Erin Darke, playing Shirley, the local girl gone bad, makes a most memorable dope-induced PB and J sandwich in one of the few moments when physical acting rather than words take center stage.
David Rabe is perhaps best known for his play and later, film, Hurlyburly, which examined what it’s really like to be on the edges of fame in Hollywood. The New Group revived it to acclaim in 2005. But in An Early History of Fire, directed here by Jo Bonney, he seems to be trying to wedge an entire generation’s memories and conflicts into a familiar coming-of-age story. One also wonders how fast it was written, as a new cast list was pasted into the program. The old list included a character named Fritz, who is no longer in the play. Perhaps he would have made more sense of Danny’s father, whose compelling part seems not fully at home in this play.
The set, designed by Neil Patel, while a realistically threadbare rendition of a widower’s house, seems unnecessarily cluttered for this smallish stage. Actors are endlessly edging past each other around furniture and while this conveys a certain level of claustrophobia it also seems cumbersome.
By the end of the play, when nearly everything else has gone wrong, Danny suddenly decides he wants to be a writer and packs his bags for life in the big wide world. Apart from becoming a writer, it’s an ending you can see coming from his first entrance onto the stage and, while the rest whizzes breathlessly by, you’re left questioning when the nostalgic trend is going to end and who will write about the 1960s more definitively than the writers lionized by the characters in this play.