By Thom Geier
January 07, 2011 at 05:00 AM EST
Joan Marcus

When we first meet Emily, the central character in Adam Bock’s taut one-act Off Broadway drama A Small Fire, we’re not sure if we should like her. She’s a hard-charging contractor, uncompromising both at work and at home — she’s ruffled the feathers of her daughter’s fiancé by telling him precisely how unpromising a match she finds him. But then a curious, largely unexplained thing begins to happen. This gruff, insensitive woman — wonderfully played by Tony winner Michele Pawk — starts to literally lose her senses. At first, it’s just her sense of smell and, with that, her taste. Then, in a cleverly lit scene, her eyesight goes. As Emily is gradually stripped of her most basic ties to the world around her, she begins to reassess her links to the people in her life — particularly her endlessly patient, almost implausibly devoted husband, John (Reed Birney), and her wounded, too-often-pushed-aside daughter, Jenny (Celia Keenan-Bolger).

The setup could seem pat — an unfeeling woman loses her senses, and begins to feel for the first time — but Bock is too clever a playwright to just coast on convention. And in Emily, he has created a remarkable role for an actress of a certain age — one that requires a good deal of physicality, bravery, and nuance to pull off. Pawk more than meets the challenges. The rest of the cast is equally fine, though both John and Jenny are more sketchily drawn. They behave pretty much as we expect based on what we learn of them in their first scenes. We believe them, but we never really get to know them.

Still, Bock has a sharp sense of the ebbs and flows of family dysfunction and the ways that people can attract and repel one another like magnets. Even more remarkably, he writes deeply moving scenes that never turn maudlin. Just when you think Jenny’s colleague Billy (Victor Williams) is about to deliver a homilistic message to John, Bock interrupts the speech with some business about the pigeon race they are watching. (Pigeon race, you ask? Don’t worry. It’s not as off-puttingly quirky as it sounds.) But as much as I found myself tearing up during A Small Fire — the finale is a particularly affecting scene of human connection in the face of potential tragedy — this ambitious, emotional play could have benefited from a smidge more ambition. It is a small, well-rendered play that, with some more attention to all its characters and their motivations, could have been a big one. In the end, I wish that Bock had taken the advice Billy tries to deliver to John: ”You gotta live a little bigger than you think you can.” B+

(Tickets: Ticketcentral.com or 212.279.4200)

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