To end their inaugural season, New Normal Rep is presenting the world premiere of F.I.R.E. by talented new voice Julia Blauvelt. Pronounced just like “fire”, the acronym stands for Financial Independence; Retire Early, the ultimate goal of Hutch. The hotshot accountant has landed his dream job at a prominent hedge-fund that comes with a summer drinks night and free pretzels in the break room. The only young white male in the department, he appears to have been uniquely embraced by the executive floor and consequently can’t wait to get out and mingle. He is the newest member of a diverse team led by the emotionally intelligent Shauna. She brought the devoted Jazz from her previous job to add to the brilliantly inventive Noel and old timer Chris and she has since hired temp Penny, a mediocre actress with huge potential to be the best accountant among them.
It takes 30 minutes of a play filled with clever banter, great humor, and sly character development to get to the first reveal in the plot. Someone has opened an off-the-books account to funnel money out of the company and Danika, to whom Shauna reports, needs the team to find the culprit. A team member will have to be fired, and not in Hutch’s unique meaning of the word. If they fail to get answers, she’ll simply have Shauna sacrifice Chris — the only family man among them. Act Two moves more swiftly towards the ultimately satisfying conclusion.
Director Heather Arnson does little to help with the pacing of this psychological whodunit. While she interjects camera movement and makes the presentation visually interesting, she doesn’t seem to have given enough guidance to her fine cast. Without the action that would be included in a live staging, there needed to be more variation in the dialogue to follow the build up of numbers-oriented incidents and consequences. Instead, the energy present in the lines is muffled, and the performers are kept at a fairly constant hum. Aaron Matteson infuses Hutch with the same high voltage boom throughout. And though clearly capable of much more, Ella Dershowitz keeps Penny’s intelligence and the essential nature of her character clouded with a Valley Girl drone and nervous hair twirling. These two characters who could be opposing swirling vortexes are firmly anchored like two metal poles with the rest of the cast hung between them. Carol Todd’s appearances as Danica are at a constant boil, though that might be fitting as a woman who often repeats her origin story. Jeffrey Bean is given some opportunity for breadth beyond fuddy-duddy through Chris’s phone calls with his unseen wife. Shauna also has story outside of the office, which Kierra Bunch leverages in the latter half of the piece. (Her explanation of how work works is priceless.) Jazz has one dramatic moment that Nathaniel P. Claridad uses to best advantage. And Nygel D. Robinson brings appropriate warmth and smoothness to Noel, though he too could obviously provide more range.
As with the other NNR offerings, the production is enhanced with a virtual contiguous set that makes the characters appear to be in different sections of the same room. This one is designed by Edward T. Morris complete with simulated florescent lighting, modern room dividers, and a city view. The ensemble is well outfitted by David Woolard with the men all in shades of blue and grey, the two managing women in black, and Penny in the sole pop of red. The sound by Lindsay Jones — who also provided transitional music — is unevenly mixed and Hutch is particularly difficult to hear.
While the entire creative community continues to struggle with the consequences of a global pandemic, it is promising that that New Normal Rep has presented an entire season of quality streaming theater not as a substitute of anything but rather as its own art form. F.I.R.E. is a satisfying example of what can be achieved within the confines of Zoom boxes. This production streams through October 20 at NewNormalRep.org. Runtime is an hour and 47 minutes with a brief intermission. Tickets are $25; $10 for students, educators and theater professionals, and can be purchased on the company’s website.