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Theatre in Review: The Fires (Soho Rep)

Sheldon Best. Photo Julieta Cervantes

Off Broadway these days, things come in threes: Monday saw the opening of Three Houses, a tripartite musical about COVID lockdown; now comes The Fires, set in a Brooklyn apartment that is a temporal triplex inhabited by gay Black men in a trio of time frames. As designed by Raphael Mishler, it is an epically long railroad flat, done almost entirely in red and it's a wonder, classically attractive no matter what year it is. At times, it is more vivid than the characters inhabiting it.

In 1974, Jay, a poet, is busily completing a tribute to the goddess Aphrodite; caring for him is his lover, George, also a writer (also, I think, an academic) and a master of denial: All signs point to Jay committing an existential vanishing act as soon as his magnum opus is completed, a fact that George would rather not think about. In 1998, the place is occupied by Sam, Jay's son; mourning his father's suicide, he holes up in the apartment, refusing to leave. Discovering the Aphrodite poems, he says, "I think Dad was gay" - news that Sam's mother may not be dying to hear. Jumping ahead to 2021, the leaseholder is Eli, a writer of online erotica who doesn't let a little thing like the COVID pandemic rain on his parade of hookups. (He has a good thing going with pizza deliverers.) Eli is perilously close to falling for Maurice, a long-term friend with benefits, but is terrified at the thought that their enjoyable grapplings might signal a deeper commitment.

Clearly, Raja Feather Kelly, a noted choreographer but a first-time playwright, doesn't lack ambition; in conceptual terms, The Fires has the complexity of a historical novel. Acting as his own director, Kelly's day job proves valuable, allowing him to deftly manage the onstage traffic, keeping characters from different time frames moving smoothly past each other and staging overlapping conversations with élan.

However, Kelly has sublet this dramatic domicile to more characters and plots than he can comfortably handle, leading to an oversupply of danglers. The Jay -- George plot particularly suffers in this regard. Jay is described in the script as "unwell" and that's putting it mildly; George is his unthinking enabler. It might take an entire play to explicate their strange pact. Why does George agree to it? Why is Jay bent on making a final exit? Do either of them have lives outside of the apartment? (To be sure, each of the play's protagonists suffers from different levels of agoraphobia.) When Reggie, Jay's unsympathetic brother, shows up (having received an alarming letter that sounds like a suicide note) and says, "I could have you committed," it sounds like a pretty good plan.

Interestingly, Jay's intention of making a big statement with his Aphrodite poems goes unrealized; when Sam discovers them, they have been unseen for a quarter of a century. For his part, Sam suffers from a crippling depression that is poorly understood by his loved ones -- and, to be honest, the audience. Not that he doesn't have reasons for feeling low: When pressed about the apartment, which Jay kept as a private residence, Leslie, his widow, merely shrugs, insisting she never thought about it; she also studiously ignores Sam's insinuations about his father's sexuality. "Your father loved you very much, and me and your sister. And, well, I..., that's that," she says. Okay, but, such family arrangements, which certainly exist, need more investigation to be made plausible. (Confusingly, Leslie is totally fine about Sam being gay.) Kelly drops big hints about Sam's inner distress but, dramatically speaking, he is a bit of a wisp: Does he have friends? Lovers? A career? Educational goals? One of The Fires' biggest problems is how Kelly holds back so much crucial information to justify an eleventh-hour twist that reorients our understanding of Jay and Sam. It's a clever move, but the price is high, leaving us at arm's length from the people onstage.

The 2021 plot is more of an add-on, only loosely thematically connected with the others as Eli struggles with the competing urges of monogamy and uncommitted fun; he, too, is influenced by the Aphrodite poems, which remain on the living room shelf. (Has no one redone the place in half a century? Rowan, Sam's sister, becomes a real estate agent, renting it to Eli: Would she really leave her father's private papers lying around, especially given the stir they create in 1998?) Sadly, Eli and Maurice are a little dull, so bent on examining their relationship in granular detail that it's a miracle they find time to shoehorn in a little bedroom activity. This narrative thread seems to exist mostly to provide the otherwise bleak proceedings with a relatively hopeful conclusion. Again, however, they are so thinly realized one's interest in them is strictly notional. (As a side note, this is the steamiest production in town; once word gets out, I can imagine tickets flying out of the box office thanks to the annual influx of Pride Month visitors.)

Kelly makes some about interesting points on the special challenges of being Black and gay in different eras; in this way, The Fires resembles Alexi Kaye Campbell's The Pride, which applies a similar analysis to the lives of British gay men. The passage of time makes for some striking contrasts: Jay and George live in an airless psychological closet; a half-century later, Eli's big problem is so many men, so little time. But The Fires, which is never dull, is constrained by its structure; the stage is filled with people, none of whom have enough room to breathe.

Compounding the problem is Kelly's uncertain handling of the actors. Phillip James Brannon goes a long way toward making Jay's obsessional behavior believable and Beau Badu and Jon-Michael Reese make a convincing pair of undecideds as Eli and Maurice. But Ronald Peet's eccentric gestures and line readings are a bit baffling as George (although the character is so ill-defined I don't blame him), Sheldon Best's natural charisma isn't enough to make sense of Sam, and Michelle Wilson's Leslie seems more unfeeling than clueless. The best work comes from Janelle McDermoth as Rowan at fourteen and thirty-seven, and Jason Veasey, double-cast as controlling, self-righteous Reggie, and as Billy, Eli's waggish friend, who wants no part of the ongoing Maurice drama.

Mishler's set is beautifully lit by Bryan Ealey, especially the bedroom scenes, which often have a compellingly noirish quality. Costume designers Naoko Nagata and Enver Chakartash have done their homework, elucidating each time frame without resorting to garishly big gestures; these costumes look like real clothing. Salvador Zamora's sound design channels the hits of several decades with selections from The Bangles, Billy Joel, Diana Ross, Paramore, and the Stylistics, in addition to ambient effects like clocks, radios, subways, and more.

It's always good to see an artist try something new and cheers to Soho Rep for giving Kelly the space to do it. There's more than enough of interest in The Fires to make one eager to see what he does next. He surely has something to say, even if he doesn't fully communicate it here. --David Barbour

(22 May 2024)

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