One of the most subtle, powerful, and potentially hazardous relationships is that which takes place between father and child. In an effort to project masculinity and strength, fathers sometimes trample hearts; as a legacy, they may leave behind mixed messages and hard memories. They don't yield as easily as mothers, nor do they forgive as quickly. And unlike the mother figure - done to death in drama from a mass of assorted angles, too-often comic - Daddy lurks within the psyche as a thunderous symbol of authority, and the struggle to transcend his influence provides the perfect theatrical conflict.
Two new plays in our area bravely - and in one case, brilliantly - explore the bond between dad and progeny. At the Coconut Grove Playhouse, the Boy Wonder of playwriting, Jon Robin Baitz, offers his intricate and wry The Substance of Fire. In a rare coup, producing artistic director Arnold Mittelman secured the rights to produce the work here at the same time it's running at the Lincoln Center Theater. Another play from 30-year-old Baitz, The End of the Day, can been seen in New York at the esteemed Playwrights Horizons (where Substance enjoyed its premiere). Small wonder Time magazine dubbed this scribe "a budding Arthur Miller."
The Substance of Fire is not a perfect work, nor is it a mature one. But it does suggest a new dramatic force capable of achieving greatness, and invites comparisons of the author with the likes of Miller, Albee, Williams, and Shaffer. Paying careful attention to dialogue (glorious, witty, and thought-provoking) and characterization (full-bodied, unusual, and believable), Baitz structures his tale of a crumbling family business around a Herculean figure - Holocaust survivor Isaac Geldhart.
Geldhart runs his publishing house the way he buys his shoes, with an almost pathological obsession with quality. As his small imprint nears bankruptcy, he bucks son/partner Aaron, a Wharton graduate (what else?), by turning down a potentially best-selling, popular Yuppie-sleaze novel in favor of a six-volume detailed study of Nazi medical experiments. Geldhart as publisher still favors Pirandello and leather in a world that has come to crave tabloid T.V. and plastic.
So Aaron calls in the troops, the second-generation AmeriJews - his sickly brother Martin and actress-sister Sarah - to rally 'round and, if need be, rip the business from Dad's helmsmanship. But Isaac, ever the survivor, undercuts the confidence of each child, slashing away the security of each with his forked tongue - he reduces Martin, the landscape architect, to nothing more than a reclusive gardener, daughter Sarah to a "clown for hire," and Aaron, after all, is "just" an accountant.
Of the two acts, the first one contains much stronger material, as the clan confronts Daddy and scores a hollow victory. Baitz abruptly switches locales and situations after intermission, focusing mainly on Isaac and the underwritten role of a visiting social worker. Though the drama loses some of its initial momentum, Isaac's imposing figure remains intriguing enough to sustain the piece.
Director Tony Giordano does a seamless job of staging explosive action, properly guiding a good cast. In the pivotal role of Isaac, veteran actor Mark Margolis owns the audience's attention from the outset; his passion, fury, and brilliance never waver for a moment. And while everyone works well together, the other stand-out - Michael Mastrototaro as the cancer-scarred Martin - performs with such honesty and consistency, he brings every possible nuance to the role of the wounded but still-loving son.
Both sets by James Tilton - of Geldhart's publishing house and of his Grammercy Park Apartment - appropriately project old-world quality down to the mantelpiece. You can easily believe these domains belong to a man who collects rare first editions and even, oddly enough, a hand-painted postcard by Hitler.
But you'll need to take a brain to The Substance of Fire; many people from the audience who exited during intermission may have left theirs at home. And the play's not a masterpiece, either - just a damn fine piece of work from a playwright whose path to the future is clearly routed for greatness.
At the Drama Center in Deerfield Beach, another new play, The Cover of Life, examines an amoral, philandering father's impact on his three handsome sons. What's clever is that father and sons (except for one) never occupy the stage or the core of the drama - instead, their actions and attitudes are revealed through the women they love and repeatedly wound.
Three young brides, each married to one of the Clifford brothers (legendary in the town of Sterlington, Louisiana, for their looks and machismo), all move in with their mother-in-law when their husbands enlist in World War II. Through an odd turn of events, Life magazine zeroes in on the story, which Henry Luce sees as a natural heart-wrencher for the Christmas issue and the perfect boost to national morale. Initially thrilled by fame, their appearance on the cover of Life becomes a tragically mixed blessing for these naive Southern belles on the verge of discovering the truth about their "perfect" husbands.
The Drama Center's new artistic director, David Spangler, with solid credits from Broadway to Key West, impressively brings to life R.T. Robinson's script (which already boasts a New York option). Spangler's use of the small space and limited lights to portray several playing areas suggests a rare talent warranting enthusiastic support from the area. Again, the play could use refining - a pointless narrator stops the action, the first act contains too much exposition and too many switching scenes, and one character, the plain Weetsie, skips the writer's mind in the end - but nevertheless there's rarely a dull moment.
Of the excellent cast, Suzanne Riley as Weetsie the bible-toting bride almost steals the thunder from her more-glamorous sisters-in-law, although Wendy Michaels in the role of Sybil, the cynical seductress, grabs her big moment and rams it straight through your heart, without once going over the top.
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It's a pleasure to see two relatively new, smartly written, and engaging dramas playing simultaneously in this arena. And by dealing with the effects of man upon child, of families upon each other, they manage to strike some chord in every thinking member of the audience. Fathers can indeed build or destroy lives, and both these plays project that same commanding power.
THE SUBSTANCE OF FIRE written by Jon Robin Baitz, directed by Tony Giordano; with Mark Margolis, Mark Gaylord, Michael Mastrototaro, Nancy McDaniel, and Crista Moore. At The Coconut Grove Playhouse, 3500 Main Hwy, Coconut Grove, through May 17. Performances Tuesday - Saturday at 8:15 p.m., with matinees Wednesday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.; additional performances May 7 and 16 at 2:00 p.m. Tickets cost $24 to $35. Call 442-4000 for more information.
THE COVER OF LIFE written by R.T. Robinson, directed by David Spangler; with Janece Martell, Wendy Michaels, Harriet Oser, Suzanne Riley, Marcy Ruderhausen, Dave Schiliro, and Ellen Simmons. At The Drama Center, 2345 W. Hillsboro Blvd, Deerfield Beach through May 10. Performances Wednesday - Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m. Tickets cost $15. Call 570-9115 for more information.