GEOMETRY OF PLAYWRITING
by Harvey Perr
published November 26, 2008
Geometry of Fire
now playing Off Broadway at The Rattlestick Theater
through December 14
You can almost hear the wheels turning inside Stephen Belber’s mind as, scene by scene, his new play, Geometry of Fire, is pieced together, this going here, that going there, until its characters, one by
one, confront not only each other, but themselves. It is as much a piece of theatrical carpentry, too stealthily schematic at times, as it
is a play.
Mel (Kevin O’Donnell) returns from
Iraq, emotionally damaged, haunted by his murder of a teen-aged Iraqi boy, restless and bored and in need of psychiatric help. Bob (Jeffrey
DeMunn), his father, is a full-blown liberal, opposed to the war his son has fought in, but still trying, with the genuine desperation of a
caring parent, to find some solace for Mel. T-Bone (Donnie Keshawarz) is an Arab-American who is trying to come to terms with his father’s rare
form of cancer, caused presumably by their having lived together in a house that had been built over what was once a testing ground for army
weapons and is now under investigation for being a possibly contaminated area; he may not have fought in Iraq, but the war has come home to him
through his father’s dying. Cynthia (Jennifer Mudge) is a bartender at a local bar who dispenses affection towards her customers, and a lot more
to T-Bone, along with beer and the occasional bracing shot. They are thrown together by degree, until they are finally caught up in
a curiously quiet maelstrom of their own making.
Belber looks at his people with a steady eye and hears their voices with a compassionate ear and never shirks from revealing the
nasty little peccadilloes that even the simplest and gentlest people are prone to develop. He understands, too, the violence that lurks
just beneath the surface, and the complexity that brings that violence into bas-relief. And he avoids, at all costs, any hint of
sentimentality or melodrama. Unfortunately, despite all the care and skill and sheer talent that have gone into the writing, Geometry of Fire, while the essence of mathematical structuring, never really catches fire; it engages
us, but, at the same time, it loosens its hold on us, sometimes at those very moments when we should feel, as his characters do, the power
of the vise into which they are held prisoners.
The cinematic fluidity of the writing is also hampered by Lucie Tiberghien’s rather straightforward direction, which emphasizes
the fact that the space at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater is not being used as effectively as it could be. The actors, however, are
excellent, and DeMunn, in particular, is so good at finding the humor and the humanity of the harried father that it almost seems as if he
actually lives on that not terribly interesting set, a design which also manages to hamper the flow of Geometry of Fire.
The play ends, incidentally, with a monologue that proves that even good writers can overplay their hands and go on talking just
when silence is what is most needed. And, indeed, the play’s penultimate scene, necessary though it is, comes on the heels of the play’s
best scene, a wonderfully realized confrontation between Mel and the ghost of the Iraqi boy he has killed; if Belber could have surpassed
that scene with an equally convincing denouement, then, instead of the sputtering out that hobbles the otherwise effective play in its last
minutes, we might have seen fireworks.
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com