Vintage-style plays won’t ever have the same cachet as retro T-shirts or brooches. Still, the first new drama from David Rabe in many years, the knotty, reflective An Early History of Fire, harkens back to a time when plots unfurled at a gentler pace and the two-act, one-set structure prevailed. It’s like returning to the 1970s, when Rabe first commanded attention for his explosive Vietnam War trilogy, which included Tony winner Sticks and Bones—and the proposition can be as daunting as it is welcoming.
But Jo Bonney’s sharp production captures the ennui of life for restless youths in the Midwest in 1962, before an age of innocence ushers in a countercultural revolution. (Note calculated references to such things as Catcher in the Rye and the pill.) Danny (Theo Stockman), a working-class college dropout, has been dating Karen (Claire van der Boom), a girl from the better side of the tracks who attends college “out East.” Soon worlds and social distinctions collide with Danny’s widowed, unemployed German-immigrant father (an excellent Gordon Clapp) and boyhood pals Jake (Dennis Staroselsky) and Terry (Jonny Orsini). Stockman veers from composed to smoldering, embodying all the shame, fear and yearning of a young man without financial and emotional stability.
Rabe’s wordy script needs pruning. But although Fire threatens to burn out of control, its story about trying to recapture the ecstasy of childhood, get laid and look to an uncertain future resonates. Bonney and her winning, largely fresh-faced young ensemble make the past a fine place to be.—Diane Snyder