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On Stage, Dreams That Go Sour

`Search and Destroy' full of cynicism; 'Substance of Fire' digs deep

SEARCH AND DESTROY Play by Howard Korder. Directed by David Chambers. Starring Griffin Dunne, Paul Guilfoyle, Stephen McHattie, Keith Szarabajka. At the Circle in the Square Theatre.

`SEARCH and Destroy" follows the rogue's progress of a ruthless con man who wangles his way from obscurity to fame and fortune as a movie mogul. When first encountered, Martin Mirkheim (Griffin Dunne) is trying to squirm out of a $47,000 tax debt to the state of Florida. Martin is certain his troubles will be over - if only he can acquire the rights to a best-selling book and make it into a hit movie.

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In Howard Korder's exceedingly black comedy, Martin's success is bought at a stiff price to others. For a while it seems that smooth-as-silk Kim (Keith Szarabajka), a New York penthouse plutocrat, will finance Martin's dreams.

Ultimately, however, Kim himself becomes a fatality in this curdled version of the American dream. Martin's rise is strewn with casualties as the plausible opportunist turns ruthless criminal.

The Circle in the Square Theatre has mounted "Search and Destroy" in a lean but striking production. Set designer Chris Barreca's use of the arena stage as an elongated runway proves a hospitable venue for the play's rapid-fire succession of short scenes.

The acting is sharp and precise in the performance staged by David Chambers. In his Broadway debut, film and TV star Griffin Dunne gives a probing portrayal of the slick, brutally opportunistic Martin, whose manner conceals his underlying aggression.

Principals in an impressive cast include the aforementioned Mr. Szarabajka, Welker White as an accommodating accessory, Stephen McHattie as the author whose bestseller Martin would adapt, Paul Guilfoyle as the rancid-tongued Ron, Arnold Molina as a drug dealer, and James Noah as the dogged tax accountant on Martin's trail. The production has been costumed by Candice Donnelly and lighted by Chris Parry. David Budries provides the percussive musical breaks.

The problem with a play of such cynical assumptions is its final effect on the spectator. "Search and Destroy" leaves nothing but a bitter aftertaste. Which is apparently what Mr. Korder and his collaborators intended. THE SUBSTANCE OF FIRE Play by Jon Robin Baitz. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. At the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center, through April 26.

SHADOWS of the holocaust haunt "The Substance of Fire." Jon Robin Baitz's unsettling, symbol-pointed new play begins in the pristine conference room of a family book-publishing business rife with generational tensions. As things develop, the playwright becomes progressively more concerned with the scars left by Nazism on widower Isaac Geldhart (Ron Rifkin), who heads the family and - as the play opens - leads the firm.

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Isaac's authority and publishing acumen is challenged by his son Aaron (Jon Tenney), the firm's accountant. Aaron wants to vary its concentration on the highly intellectual fare he justifiably considers obscure by bringing out a piece of popular fiction. Isaac regards his son's choice a trashy departure from Geldhart's traditional high standards. The family conference of Act One is a frequently bitter confrontation.

As is often the case with such dramas, the playwright is concerned about more than surface matters. Behind Isaac's obduracy and occasional tantrums lie memories of the holocaust that consumed immediate family members even as he managed to escape to a new world and a new life.

Three-and-a-half years pass between Acts One and Two as "The Substance of Fire" moves from the firm's offices to Isaac's comfortable Gramercy Park flat. There he is visited by Marge Hackett (Maria Tucci), a sympathetic psychiatric social worker with her own bizarre personal history. (Both locales serve as retreats from the gray outdoor bleakness of a wintry New York City.) In his advancingly confused state, Isaac imagines that Marge is a Sotheby's representative and proceeds at one point to display some of his treasured literary autographs.

The play ends as the dispossessed publisher leaves the apartment for a perhaps symbolic walk in the park with son Martin (Patrick Breen), a landscapist who has suffered more than his share of paternal scorn.

Under Daniel Sullivan's direction, Mr. Rifkin creates a sharply incised portrait of the mentally distraught survivor. The actor never plays for sympathy or attempts to soften the image of a man whose escape from the horrors he witnessed has left him with lasting emotional and psychic scars. The performance proves consistently believable, whether Isaac is indulging in contemptuous irony or exploding in periodic rage.

The troubled family portrait is vividly completed by Sarah Jessica Parker as Isaac's actress-daughter who complains at one point: "Nobody bothered asking me what I think." Ms. Tucci's Marge is direct and practical minded, a potential calming presence - though whether she succeeds in reaching Isaac with her therapy remains a problem. The Lincoln Center production has been attractively designed by John Lee Beatty, with lighting by Arden Fingerhut and costumes by Jess Goldstein.

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