Memory is sacred in Judaism. But can it overwhelm the present and prevent one from living? In Jon Robin Baitz’s 1991 play, “The Substance of Fire,” an irascible Holocaust survivor who owns a small New York publishing company insists on publishing only works on genocide, to the chagrin of his adult children who fear that the firm will go bankrupt. A major Off-Broadway revival, which is now in previews, opens next week at Second Stage in Midtown.
“The Substance of Fire,” which starred Ron Rifkin as the patriarch and Sarah Jessica Parker as his daughter, was written when Baitz was just 29, and it wowed the critics; in his New York Times review, Frank Rich said that the playwright “seems to understand so much — about people, language, society — and to be so eager to say what he knows” that the play spilled over with ideas and emotions.
It was made into a film in 1996, with part of the original cast, including both Rifkin and Parker, intact. Baitz went on to become one of the leading Jewish dramatists of his generation, along with Tony Kushner, Donald Margulies, and Wendy Wasserstein.
Directed by Trip Cullman, “The Substance of Fire” presents the showdown between the survivor, Isaac Geldhart (John Noble) and his children, when they implore him to publish a contemporary novel rather than the father’s latest project — a six-part history of Nazi medical experiments. Isaac’s intransigence, along with his mean-spirited dismissal of his children’s desires, throws not just the viability of the business, but also the psychological health of the family itself into question.
In an interview, Cullman told The Jewish Week that he sees “Substance” as a play as about “loneliness — the inability of these very damaged people to relate to each other.” Isaac’s “dogmatic pursuit of principle in order to shield himself from survivor’s guilt” has compromised his empathy, Cullman explained.
Cullman reported that Baitz views the current production as “a more emotional story” than the original; the possibility of redemption is now exhibited by playing up elements in the final scene that emphasize the urgent need for Isaac to reconnect to his children.
The director views the play as “prescient” in raising the specter of the corporatization of the publishing world. “The play speaks to the dissolution of literate culture,” he observed, “to our present moment in which intellectual inquiry is a dying art form.”
“The Substance of Fire” opens on Sunday, April 27, at Second Stage, 305 W. 43rd St. Performances are Tuesdays at 7 p.m., Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. For tickets, $68-$125, call (212) 246-4422 or visit www.2st.com.