A woman afflicted with multiple health problems never comes to life

By Mark Peikert

Something odd happens during Adam Bock’s slight new play, A Small Fire, currently being given the usual sleek Playwrights Horizons’ production. As wife and mother Emily Bridges begins losing her senses, one by one, we in the audience find her unnamed condition catching: Gradually, we lose our empathy, sympathy and interest.

Victor Williams and Michele Pawk in a scene from A Small Fire. Photo by Joan Marcus

At a mere 80 minutes, perhaps it’s not as shocking as it seems that A Small Fire is often abrupt. After a gradual build to the revelation that Emily has lost her sense of smell, her other senses vanish with an off-putting suddenness. Fine one moment, the next she’s blind. Then deaf. Through it all, her husband and daughter fret and glower, respectively, as this complicated woman is reduced to a mere shell.

Unfortunately, the lack of build-up to these losses can make them seem inappropriately amusing. Matters are not helped by the loose direction from Trip Cullman, who seems as unsure of the material as his cast. Michele Pawk, usually a top-grade stage actress, is far from her wheelhouse here as the tough-talking owner of a construction company. Bock has written a very specific character, one whose speech belies her well-to-do status. But dropping the g’s off of her words and employing a hoarse staccato cackle, Pawk (looking remarkably patrician with her silver mane) comes across less like a no-nonsense broad and more like a parody of one.

Likewise, Celia Keenan-Bolger, as Emily’s daughter Jenny, seems uncertain about her under-written character. Emily and Jenny have a tense relationship (Emily has a tense relationship with everyone but her employee Billy, played by Victor Williams), but their backstory is never sufficiently fleshed out for audiences to understand why. As a result, Jenny’s ambivalence about her mother makes the character seem bitchier than she should.

Actually, the only actors giving fully realized performances are Reed Birney, as Emily’s husband John, and Williams. Birney conveys the emotional fallout of being the family “good guy” when things go horribly wrong for the usual bad guy. And until a requisite, late-in-the-show speech about AIDS, Fontaine crafts a pleasant performance as the hard-working and loyal Billy, who refuses to abandon Emily when all she’s left with is her sense of touch and her voice (though why her voice levels change appropriately when she’s deaf is a question best left to Cullman and Bock).

There are tough moments in Bock’s script that hint at a show that could have been. At their daughter’s wedding reception, the now-blind Emily turns to John and says, “I didn’t love you. But I do now.” Too often, though, the sanding off of Emily’s rough edges seems entirely too easy. After repeatedly complaining about Jenny’s fiancé, Emily has a sudden about-face regarding their marriage, presumably because her afflictions have convinced her that life is too short. Just once, how luxurious it would be to revel in someone remaining resolutely cranky in the face of illness. Instead, we get a modern version of a woman’s weepie, in which the heroine is humbled by circumstances out of her control, finding true, fade-out-on-it love in the process.
A Small Fire
Through Jan. 23, Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St. (betw. 9th & 10th Aves), 212-279-4200; $70.