"Do we have to talk?" asks Holocaust survivor Isaac Geldhart of his visiting son at the top of Act Two in this Jon Robin Baitz's Lear-like saga. When as an audience member one longs to shout, "Not for my money, you don't," it is a Lear-like matter of mind suffering with body in this tedious evening. Take a script that contains too much exposition and no elucidation, add paper-thin direction, and top it off with indicated and sometimes inaudible acting, and be reminded, sadly, that nothing can come of nothing.
We meet Geldhart (Joseph Ruskin), an intransigent, irascible head of a book publishing house, who is about to publish another in an apparent line of overly scholarly works. His three children are standard fare: The daughter (Cynthia Gravinese) is an insecure actor in California, one son is an airy professor of landscape architecture (Michael Bonnabel), and the other is the publishing house's yuppie business advisor (Scott Donovan). Inexplicably the once-successful businessman, who raised three children from his Gramercy Park apartment and gave them reputable educations, begins to commit business suicide. As Act One ends, the children combine their shares in the company to remove him as head of the business. Act Two finds the widower living out his days in grumbling solitude, until a socialite social worker (Katherine Henryk), in a serious case of malpractice, stokes his fire.
Under the direction of Beverly Olevin, the actors fail to heed Lear's advice: Speak what the characters feel, not what they ought to say. Olevin has apparently given them nothing with which to flesh out the loosely rendered characters. Instead, several speak lines that barely rise off the page, offer predictable interpretations, and indulge in lingering pauses between lines while rushing through beats.
Ruskin at least brings regal sensibility to his characterization. His voice commands attention, his bearing is stately. It's a shame, then, that no one has found a bridge between Isaac's flaming anger and his smoldering dénouement. Donovan, too, finds naturalness in his delivery and meaningful transitions among thoughts and moods.
Although scenic designer Felicity Nove establishes a sense of time and place with the bookcase-lined conference room of Geldhart Publishing and the past-its-prime Gramercy Park apartment, a preponderance of law-office books distractingly lines the shelves while the Geldharts argue over their specialization in publishing the history and art of the Nazi era.
"The Substance of Fire," presented by and at Theatre 40, 241 Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. June 30-Aug. 12. $15-18. (323) 936-5842.