Geometry of Fire @ Rattlestick Theatre, New York

cast list
Kevin O’Donnell, Donnie Keshawarz, Jeffery DeMunn, Jennifer Mudge

directed by
Lucie Thieberghien
Bear with me a moment while I make a clumsy analogy. A good cook will follow a recipe and make a very good meal. A bad cook will attempt to follow the same recipe and make a lousy meal. But a great cook will take that recipe and build on it, throwing unexpected things into the mix and giving it their own spin, making from it a truly memorable meal.

The creative team behind Geometry Of Fire is full of great cook, so to speak.

The play, a new drama by Stephen Belber, can be summarized rather simply. Two young men, one a soldier back from Iraq and one the son of Saudi immigrants, both are struggling with their lives. Their paths cross at a local bar and through an infatuation with the same woman.
Though the men have much in common, the current pressures and perceived stereotypes that surround them both, throw up a wall between them. Condensed in this way, it sounds potentially simplistic and predictable, but this crisp and moving play is neither.

Much of this has to do with the performances. The four person cast is superlative. Kevin O’Donnell plays Mel, the war veteran and Donnie Keshawarz plays the young Saudi, Tariq. The two characters don’t have a lot of scenes together, but they travel parallel paths. Both men’s mothers have passed away and they have failed to impress their fathers. In particular, young Tariq’s father is an unseen presence in the play, palpable in his effect on his son. The father is dying of cancer and Tariq has to battle US government bureaucracy to get aid and answers.

Mel has been changed by his time in the war; his once charmed life has been turned inside out by what he saw and did. His fight is with both the military bureaucracy and, again, with his father, both of whom would prefer he return to his pre-war outlook. Mel’s father, played by Jeffery DeMunn, is a liberal and a Vietnam objector who doesn’t understand why his son went to Iraq in the first place. To escape his father, Mel spends his afternoons in a local bar. The bartender there, Cynthia, played by Jennifer Mudge, is the accidental object of the affections of both Mel and Tariq and ultimately the catalyst for their confrontations.

Through this set-up, Belber addresses an amazing array of issues, many if not most unrelated to Iraq or the war. The play is less concerned with politics and more with men and the way they relate to each other, as friends, as sons, as fathers. Both Mel and Tariq are driven to do that guy thing and “fix” things, even if can’t be fixed. Both Tariq and Mel have to live with the fact they aren’t the men their fathers wanted them to be. And, like all men at some point, both are frustrated, entranced and confounded by women.

O’Donell has a raw quality, his emotions barely kept in check, as the ex-solider. He is totally captivating. There is an immediacy and a power to his performance that is magnified by the small size the theater. He seems beyond rage and hate, instead he is consumed by a soul-killing sorrow, a world weariness, and a sense that no one will ever understand what he has experienced.

Mudge, as both Cynthia and an array of female characters that the two men must deal with: life coaches, counsellors and the face of US military, is spectacular. She is required to hop between roles from one scene to the next, and does so convincingly with only the slightest change in posture and expression. She doesn’t slip on glasses or use an accent, and yet she makes each switch feel natural.

Director Lucie Lucie Thieberghien clearly has a feel for these characters and successfully makes this big play work in such a small space. Its not a perfect production: though its just 90 minutes long, the pace starts to waver in the final quarter. But it finds its footing again before the finish. And the show stays with you long after you leave the theatre just like the memory of a fine meal. The recipe may not sound much on paper but the results are something youll be telling all your friends about for some time to come.

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