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Did This Play Predict the Future?

Date: Apr 29, 2014

20 years later, Jon Robin Baitz's "The Substance of Fire" seems eerily prescient about America


When Jon Robin Baitz sat down in 1991 to write a play about the demise of books and printing, he likely had no idea just how prescient he was. In 2014, however, The Substance of Fire seems remarkably accurate.

Second Stage's current revival of Baitz's drama, which charts the personal and professional earthquakes rocking a family-owned publishing company, reminds us how much we've changed. "When this play was first produced, the world was a very different place," says Trip Cullman, who's directing the revival. "The first act foretells the death of the written word as an art form in our society, and I feel like now, in 2014, we are already there. Because it's set in 1991, this story feels like a warning, and now we have seen all the anxieties of the play bear out as truths. It feels like a relic of an era that very much influences our era."

Yet Cullman doesn't want his production to bludgeon us with connections between the past and the present. "This play asks for an almost complete invisibility of the director's hand, which is really exciting to me," he says. adding that he hopes audiences feel like they're eavesdropping on real people rather than symbols of the early 90s. "There are no directorial tricks to hide behind, no fancy transitions and extraordinary set pieces and all the tricks of that trade," he says. "Really what the play needs is five actors who have to be freaking great."

The costume design needs to be subtle, too, lest we get distracted by actors who look like caricatures of the first Bush era. To that end, the outfits are period-appropriate but not aggressively so: One character wears a floral dress under a mismatched cardigan, but another sports a preppy sweater that would still blend in on the Upper West Side. "I didn't want to put the women in giant shoulder pads and have the men with incredibly massive pleats on their pants," Cullman says.

But regardless of its wardrobe choices---and even its insight on the future of books---the production ultimately needs to break free of its period altogether. "For any play to have longevity and be forever part of the theatrical conversation, it needs to contain themes of universality," Cullman says. "No one's going to accuse Shakespeare or Chekhov or Tennessee Williams of being irrelevant. All those playwrights were examining themes that were universal, despite setting them in revolutionary Russia or the South in the thirties."

To that end, he notes that The Substance of Fire is as much about loneliness, love, and betrayal as it is about the dissolution of the publishing industry: "Everyone gets lonely, everyone feels isolated, everyone has guilt, everyone grieves. I think that holds true whether it's 1991 or 2014 or 3014."


Jack Smart is a Brooklyn-based arts writer and critic. He blogs about theatre and pop culture at

Photo by Carol Rosegg