Review: Love Is Hell for the Men in The Fires

Raja Feather Kelly makes a stirring playwrighting debut at Soho Rep.

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Phillip James Brannon, Ronald Peet (background), Sheldon Best, and Beau Badu in The Fires, written and directed by Raja Feather Kelly, at Soho Rep.
(© Julieta Cervantes)

Best known as the choreographer for A Strange Loop, Teeth, and Lempicka, Raja Feather Kelly has a talent for graceful movement, and he puts it to good use in his enigmatic and haunting new drama The Fires, which he directs in its world premiere at Soho Rep. The play deals with three Black men who live in the same claustrophobic railroad apartment in different decades, but rather than tell their stories separately, Kelly creates a mesmerizing ballet of narratives that overlap and casually brush up against one another.

Writer Jay (Phillip James Brannon) owns the apartment and shares it with his lover, George (Ronald Peet exuding affection), in 1974. Struggling with mental health issues, Jay compulsively fills mountains of journals with cryptic entries about love and the family he must lie to in order to be with George. Years later in 1998, we see Jay’s son, Sam (Sheldon Best), reading the journals to see if they contain clues as to why his father killed himself. Was he gay?

Sam’s mother (Michelle Wilson in a stately performance) doesn’t believe that for a second, nor does she think her husband’s death had anything to do with Sam being gay. She and his sister, Rowan (Janelle McDermoth), try to get Sam out of the house and away from those journals for the sake of his own mental health, but with no luck.

Twenty-three years later, during the cloistered days of Covid, Rowan’s podcaster friend Eli (Beau Badu) rents the furnished flat from her and reads through the journals (they’re still in the apartment). As he struggles to find the vocabulary to express his love for Maurice (Jon-Michael Reese), who wants to be more than just a fuck boy, Eli realizes that the hookup life he has been living has been as much a prison as the pandemic apartment he rarely leaves.

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Michelle Wilson as Sam’s mother, Leslie, in The Fires
(© Julieta Cervantes)

Though the blending of timelines disorients at first, The Fires gradually unfolds like a mystery. Kelly keeps the years distinct with Naoko Nagata and Enver Chakartash’s period-specific costumes and Bryan Ealey’s dramatic lighting changes, even as the plots start to intertwine and characters from the past and present jostle each other on the same couch. In his debut as a playwright, Kelly proves adept at building suspense by revealing secrets about Jay’s, Sam’s, and Eli’s pasts little by little and using the journals as the narrative thread that connects them.

Not all the characters feel completely drawn, though. Best gives a gut-wrenching performance as the anguished Sam, but we never really understand his struggle with mental health as well as we do his father’s. The others fare better. Brannon is powerful as the tortured writer and estranged parent who sees himself as a tragic embodiment of Love with no chance of survival in this world, and Badu and Reese tear our hearts out as the play’s one hope that cycles of self-hatred can be broken to make deep connections with each other possible.

With frequent references to loneliness, isolation, and suicide, The Fires sometimes feels heavy and monochromatic. That’s the case with the in-your-face symbolism of Raphael Mishler’s infernal set — a garish study in scarlet that makes King Charles’s new portrait look drab.

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Phillip James Brannon (background), Janelle McDermoth, and Sheldon Best in The Fires
(© Julieta Cervantes)

Fortunately, Kelly provides characters who add some levity. As Rowan, McDermoth drops sassy one-liners on Sam and Eli like she’s throwing pebbles at pigeons. And Jason Veasey gives nuanced performances in two roles, first as Jay’s stern brother, Reggie, who wants to know what all Jay’s talk of “disappearing” is about, and then later as Eli’s quippy friend, Billy, who advises Eli to stop dithering about Maurice: “Y’all need to get married and just die in each other’s game-playing arms,” he drones.

While there’s a lot to admire here, The Fires starts to consume itself toward the end with a climax that stretches on for ages. Emily Wells’s suspenseful music (gradually intensified by sound designer Salvador Zamora) seems to signal that the play has reached its crisis. But it’s a misleading cue that makes the last 20 minutes of the show’s nearly two hours feel overly long.

Still, I was deeply moved by Kelly’s quietly tragic ending, and I couldn’t help being reminded of a scene from the film The Hours — to which The Fires bears striking similarities — where Leonard Woolf asks his wife, Virginia, why someone has to die in her book Mrs. Dalloway. “Someone has to die in order that the rest of us should value life more,” she replies. The Fires suggests that the thing we should value more is love.

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The Fires

Final performance: June 30, 2024