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Finer Noble Gases

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Forget thoughts of terror, war, or hatred - there's something even deadlier at work in Adam Rapp's Finer Noble Gases. The force affecting all the characters - and, ultimately, the play itself - is also one of the most difficult to overcome: inertia.

The play aims at being a fierce and funny examination of what happens when we become trapped in life, but makes no attempt to offer solutions or even soothing words of encouragement. They would be of no help to anyone onstage by the time the play starts, with four of the characters lost to the debilitating effects of drug addiction, and the fifth finding himself adrift in a sea of poor personal choices that cannot possibly end happily.

How did the characters get where they are? One clue is in the title - noble gases (such as helium, neon, and argon) are elements on the periodic table that, because of their electron structures, cannot easily bond with other elements to form molecules. The five characters in Rapp's play are very much the same, with each man lost in his own little world and finding it increasingly difficult to deal with what lies just outside the boundaries of his own consciousness.

The members of the hard rock band Less - Staples (Robert Beitzel), Lynch (Michael Chernus), Speed (Ray Rizzo), and Chase (Paul Sparks) - all share an apartment on Manhattan's Lower East Side and have already gone about as far as they can go when the show begins. Chase and Staples are mesmerized by television, Lynch flies into violent fits of rage, and Speed barely seems aware that there's a world around him. The four men collide in various combinations in their attempts to deal with what remains of their lives: Ordinary activities like moving a couch or even constructing a coherent sentence prove almost too difficult. A series of circumstances attracts their downstairs neighbor Gray (Connor Barrett) to the apartment, and though he's initially repulsed, it's soon shown that his normal life is anything but, and he's caught up in his own web of deception about himself and others. He may not play an instrument, but he fits right in with the band.

Sparks's performance might be a bit broader than is absolutely ideal, but the five men all effectively realize their characters, and adroitly execute the fine study in contrasts necessary to show how people from all walks of life can be affected by drugs or hopelessness. Rizzo in particular gives himself so completely over to the junkie-to-end-all-junkies Steve - who wraps himself up in coaxial cable and even urinates in a spare drum in the living room - that to see him cleaned up and coherent in the show's sobering finale (set much earlier) borders on the shocking.

Even that's problematic, though; this play comes across as little more than a series of shocks, with only the comedy - however dark - providing even a little release. Rapp is adept at plumbing the depths of human desires and addictions, but is always at his best when his work is pierced with the light of contrast. The beauty of love that seeps into the impossible hopelessness of his Blackbird, which also played New York earlier this year, gives that play a transcendent, even noble quality. That never happens here.

While that's part of the point - how much about these characters can be considered noble? - it places a considerable burden on the director to bring it all together and help get the play off the ground. Michael John GarcÚs is mostly up to the challenge, but struggles in his attempts to balance the show's comedy with its overriding ugliness; a better balance between the light and the dark would seem to be called for. The set (by Van Santvoord) elegantly captures the inelegance of the characters' existence: It's an artist's refuge after all the art has evaporated. The costumes (Elizabeth Hope Clancy) and lights (Ben Stanton) help make similar statements.

But too much of what Rapp himself is saying is lost in the ineluctable murkiness of his subject matter and the treatment it has received. It's clear from the outset that Rapp's tale is intended to be cautionary, a warning about the dangers of drugs and an unwillingness or inability to take control of life and all the heartbreaks that go along with it. It just never seems as if Finer Noble Gases, in the way it presents all this, is fully under its author's control.

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Rattlestick Playwrights Theater
Finer Noble Gases
Through October 24
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes with no intermission
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place, west of 7th Avenue between West 11th and Perry Streets
Schedule and Tickets: 212.868.4444