Theo Stockman and Claire van der Boom
in An Early History of Fire
(© Monique Carboni)
Theo Stockman and Claire van der Boom
in An Early History of Fire
(© Monique Carboni)
David Rabe's autobiographically-inspired new play, An Early History of Fire, now being presented by The New Group at the Acorn Theater at Theatre Row, beautifully captures a specific moment in history in the early 1960s when the country was on the verge of profound change and in deep turmoil.

Rabe avoids the museum play pitfall by focusing on the microdynamics of a particular family in the Midwest. The main character, Danny (Theo Stockman), dreams of breaking free from the grip of his small town and unemployed heavy-drinking Pop (Gordon Clapp) and becoming a writer, but what he really wants to escape is his working-class roots.

The play opens with Danny asking his father to take his suit to the cleaners. He explains that the girl he's seeing, Karen (Claire van der Boom), has invited him over for dinner with her parents. Danny feel pressure to dress up because she comes from money.

When Pop forgets to pick it up, Danny flies into a rage and contemplates not going until his friend Terry (Jonny Orsini) borrows his father's suit. Even then, he's self-conscious and grills Karen about what her parents thought of the suit. "What about when I came in, did they notice the suit was big? That's why I was late." It turns out that what they noticed was him sitting in his car outside their house and wondering why he wasn't coming in.

Rabe uses the suit metaphor throughout to show the class divide that his characters feel, whether it's real or imagined. Later on, Danny and Terry get into a fight over comments Danny makes about his father's suit. The language is simple and natural, but with a cutting precision that makes scenes fly by with an epic sweep.

While smoking a joint in a particularly memorable scene, Karen and Danny talk about Catcher in the Rye and how it speaks to their lives, which bleeds into their hopes and dreams for the future. Stockman and van der Boom play off each other nicely. Van der Boom exudes an aristocratic charm while Stockman teases out the frustration and resentment his character feels along with his excitement for the future.

In many ways, the play is a typical coming-of-age tale, but like the hit TV series Mad Men, it also acts as a time capsule of sorts that lets us measure our own lives and our society's progress to this moment in time.