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'The Substance of Fire' disappointing, but good chemistry salvages

"The Substance of Fire" Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg

As stressed by its title, Second Stage, which has one of the best track records of any Off-Broadway company in terms of producing new plays and musicals, actually started out specializing in revivals of shows that deserved a “second staging.”

As one of its increasingly rare revivals, Second Stage is currently doing Jon Robin Baitz’ family drama “The Substance of Fire,” which premiered in 1991 at Playwrights Horizons with a cast that included Ron Rifkin and Sarah Jessica Parker, who both appeared in a 1996 film version.

It centers on the combative and principled Isaac Geldhart, a European Jew who was sheltered from the Nazis as a child. He arrived in New York with no family and established himself as a book seller dedicated to high culture and obscure academic topics.

In one act, his three adult children have come together in an attempt to convince him to publish a racy novel with commercial appeal rather than a six-volume treatise on Nazi medical experiments. When he refuses to compromise, they organize a corporate takeover of his company.

In act two, set three years later, Geldhart confronts a female social worker who has arrived at his apartment to determine whether he still has basic mental competency. Geldhart, muddled but savvy, turns the meeting around once he exposes the social worker’s identity and her own difficult past.

Although the play is intellectually probing and revolves around a complex, self-destructive figure, it really didn’t need a new production. It certainly pales in comparison to Baitz’ more recent drama “Other Desert Cities.” Furthermore, this revival, as directed by Trip Cullman, is full of broad performances and lacks ensemble unity.

John Noble, who appears on the television series “Sleepy Hollow,” offers a spirited turn as Gelhart. If the first act is a disappointment, Noble and Charlayne Woodard, as the social worker, salvage the rest with their dynamic chemistry.

 

If you go: “The Substance of Fire” plays at Second Stage through May 24. 305 W. 43rd St., 2st.com.

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