Geometry of Fire
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
November 23, 2008
It was hard figuring out how to write this review. Not because Stephen Belber's newest play, Geometry of Fire, is bad; au contraire. There are a lot of things which will eventually elevate Geometry to the near-top of my "Best of 2008" list, starting with its extraordinary writing and exquisite performances. The problem was trying to coherently explain the conundrum presented by the piece as performed on the stage of the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.
Belber is New York's most prolific unknown playwright. His name strikes a vague chord of recognition when mentioned, but it's his extensive body of work (McReele at the Roundabout, Match on Broadway with Frank Langella) that gets most people's heads nodding. Geometry of Fire, is, in fact, his second play of the season, the first being the acclaimed production of Fault Lines, at the Cherry Lane Theatre.
In an interview with American Theatre, Belber explained how hard it was to find a theatre company to produce Geometry, due to its subject matter. Understandable. The play concerns two people: Mel, a marine sniper returned to the States from active duty in Iraq dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; and Tariq, an Saudi Arabian American pressing the government to test his yard for chemical weapons which may or may not have been dumped there years ago and which may or may not have contributed to his father's terminal blood cancer.
The play jumps from location to location but the production, solidly directed by Lucie Tiberghein, ultimately doesn't do the large-scale material justice. The script is calling out for something bigger, for a variety of locations, for more than just lighting (designed by Peter West) to signify a bar or an office in the Pentagon (on a grayscale set by Robin Vest). It's not that Tiberghein's production is confusing, even with actors Jeffrey DeMunn and Jennifer Mudge doubling and tripling characters sans costume changes (costumes designed by Anne Kennedy) in supporting roles. The conundrum is that Belber has written a big film that's getting a tiny stage production.
The acting is first rate and all four cast members, Mudge and DeMunn in supporting roles, along with Kevin O'Donnell as Mel and Donnie Keshawarz as Tariq, are spitfires. O'Donnell and Keshawarz are moving, though Mudge is the particular standout, playing a wide variety of women; in one striking example, her voice in a steady, unaffected monotone, she expertly embodies a Pentagon worker who's spent too many years answering the same questions she's asked by Tariq.
Starting out slow, ultimately reaching a climax of dizzying heights, raw, haunting emotion is very apparent in Belber's script, and it ends up being a very powerful commentary on the state of the (post-Iraq) world. Only a few moments seem forced (a lot of the lines meant as jokes don't go over as well as I imagine they would like) and the deliberate ambiguity of the play itself (and the ending) is clearer on the page than it is in performance.
Still, I keep going back to the fact that Geometry of Fire has "summer blockbuster" written all over it. While it is theatrical in nature, I just think it would make a better film than it does a play. Throw a huge budget at it and Geometry could be one helluva picture.