Firemen: Theater Review

Jeff Galfer Photography
An unnerving drama of the effects of an underage seduction transcends the sordid to create an original mood of existential insecurity. 

A challenging drama of underage seduction arrives in Atwater Village.

Deliberately set in the early 1990s, during the Gulf War in a nondescript nether portion of Washington State, an apparently average adolescent boy, Ben (Iam Bamberg), living a marginal existence with his underemployed single mom Annie (Amanda Saunders), falls under the thrall of Susan (Rebecca Gray), the predatory secretary to the school principal, who meticulously and efficiently grooms him for an inappropriate sexual relationship for which he is plainly emotionally unequipped.

Firemen goes about its own obscure agenda with similar deliberate manipulation, bruising sensibilities and then going further (and possibly deeper) to subvert our expectations of what kind of work it is and where it is going, to challenge our perceptions of security in a perilous new world order. It may appear throughout to be no more than a naturalistic exploration of a problem issue, yet despite that unstinting façade, the play wanders continually into vague but far more metaphysical territory.

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Playwright Tommy Smith at no point tips his hand and even at the play’s finale offers no unequivocal resolution of his various contending tones of menace, unease, dependency and control, all of which remain disquietingly fluid within and among each of the characters. One leaves unsure where he has taken us, which was unquestionably his objective, the ambiguities anchored by the diffident deliberateness with which Smith observes and forces us to confront, and therefore comprehend, appalling behavior. He insists we understand, even sympathize, with the deviant as an ineluctable component of our own natures and an inescapable influence of our contemporary environment.

Though the play sits squarely in the tradition of Harold Pinter, its language, devices and analysis strike markedly different notes, peculiarly American and disconcertingly of its time and place. An audience can hardly fail to recognize the absence of the Internet and social media, which can make the setting seem in a far more distant past than it actually is. Smith shrewdly deploys this effect to enhance both our sense of dislocation and the surprising relevance of this less sophisticated era to our own. He implies intimations of political insights of how public policy can distort and alter social attitudes, and how aggression on the world stage can make unthinkable transgressions in our personal sphere feel less than forbidden.

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None of this thematic daring could even find a footing without a pinpoint-precise production. Director Chris Fields locates the wayward, conflicted pulse of every scene, maintaining our focus on the character diagnostics while invoking feints at roiling background anxieties and dread. Smith has chosen to dramatize characters of intelligence but relatively little education, aware of their limited opportunities in life and struggling to find some better alternatives without much sense of how or what, let alone why. The cast is uniformly exemplary, capable of filling in realistic detail with particular individuality, while remaining attuned to more elusive possibilities of suggestive meaning. They are all unfailingly interesting to watch, even as they, and we, squirm and flail. Everything that may seem not quite right in this show only reveals ultimately how thoughtful and implicating this bedeviling and stimulating play can be. 

Venue: The Echo Theatre Company, Atwater Village (through Mar. 16)

Cast: Ian Bamberg, Rebecca Gray, Amanda Saunders, Michael McColl, Zach Callison

Director: Chris Fields

Writer: Tommy Smith

Scenic Design: Angel Herrera

Lighting Design: Matt Richter (with Christina Robinson)

Sound Designer: Drew Dalzell

Costume Design: Kathryn Poppen

Produced by Chris Fields & Rebecca Eisenberg