SAN DIEGO — Four years after being praised as an "intellectual 'Other People's Money,' " "Substance of Fire" proves it has longer legs and more enduring fire than that trendy if clever tale of corporate takeover ever did.
Now in a passionately intelligent production at the Old Globe Theatre's Cassius Carter Centre Stage, Jon Robin Baitz's tale of an uncompromising publisher at war with his own children serves as a fierce reminder of high moral standards in slippery times.
Isaac Geldhart, played by Harold Gould with piercing but soulful eyes, runs a small, family-owned publishing firm buckling under the weight of the scholarly tomes he so relentlessly vows to publish: "A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo/Indian Words and Phrases" and six volumes about Nazi medical experiments. His son, Aaron (fast-talking Maury Ginsberg), pressures him to publish a potentially moneymaking potboiler. His other children, Martin (a vulnerable Brian Drillinger) and Sarah (conflicted Melissa Friedman) are called in to be wooed for their stockholding shares.
But true to Isaac's prickly, unyielding nature, he cannot even woo properly. He calls Martin--a professor of landscape art at Vassar--a gardener. Sarah, an actress in children's television shows, gets put down as a "clown" at birthday parties. Not all wars are fought with guns, as Baitz quickly shows in the witty but cutting exchanges, smartly executed by a smart cast.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday January 16, 1996 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 7 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Clarification--Nancy Churnin's review of "The Substance of Fire" at the Old Globe Theatre in Monday's Calendar correctly stated that playwright Jon Robin Baitz turned down a Columbia Pictures deal to make a movie of the play. He did, however, go forward with Miramax, and the film is scheduled for release late this year.
But the real star here is the playwright, a worthy successor to the mantle of Arthur Miller, the stage's last great voice of realism and conscience.
The two acts, which have been criticized for being so disparate, actually hang together like the Iliad and the Odyssey. Act One is war, complete with an ambush worthy of the Trojan Horse. The second act is the return home as a deposed and aging Isaac struggles to reclaim the publishing house now run by his faithless son, Aaron, and a faceless Japanese company.
One of the most fascinating images here is Isaac's obsession with a postcard drawn by Hitler. Hitler used paints given him by a Jewish merchant who thought the young man had talent. The unstated burden that Isaac, a Holocaust survivor, seems to be laboring with, is whether he, as a publisher, might be inadvertently publishing a Hitler rather than works of quality and, in so doing, having complicity with evil out of misguided niceness.
A fascinating thought and one of so many in this richly rewarding play, which, ultimately, seems to suggest that what the world needs is more good men and fewer nice guys.
The play had been scheduled to have its West Coast premiere at the Old Globe just before the Mark Taper Forum got it two years ago. Baitz pulled the plug because the Globe, at that time, would not sign the Dramatists Guild contract. Similarly, Baitz turned down a six-figure sum to do a film version of "Substance" at Columbia Pictures when he found out that the studio planned to use Dustin Hoffman, Richard Dreyfuss or Anthony Hopkins instead of his first choice--and friend--Ron Rifkin as Isaac.
Give the man credit for a true Geldhartian decision.
* "Substance of Fire," a play by Jon Robin Baitz, directed by Andrew J. Traister. Cassius Carter Centre Stage, Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; Saturdays/Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Feb. 18. $22-$38. (619) 239-2255. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.