Adam Rapp's Nocturne had its acclaimed world premiere last fall in Cambridge, Massachusetts as part of the American Repertory Theatre's New Stages Series. Ripples were felt 3,000 miles in every direction from Los Angeles to London. Later this spring the 32-year-old novelist and playwright's earlier work Blackbird, first seen in workshop last year at Mabou Mines, premieres in London. And Nocturne, with actor Dallas Roberts repeating his breathtaking performance, makes that oh-so-important 200-mile journey from Boston to the New York Theatre Workshop next month.
Meanwhile, Rapp's latest play Animals and Plants is at The Hasty Pudding Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. through April 15th. This production replaces Robert Brustein's own previously announced play The Face-Lift in the A.R.T. New Stages Series spring slot.
The cast is headed up by A.R.T. veterans Will LeBow and Benjamin Evett portraying a mismatched pair of second rate errand boys from New York City who become snow bound in a Boone, North Carolina motel while waiting for a pick-up of "magic mushrooms."
As reported in several local interviews, the impetus for the play came from Rapp's own experience a few years ago of being trapped in a hotel during a blizzard with his best friend. According to Rapp they ate pizza, watched the Weather Channel and talked for three intensive days.
In taking off from that situation, Rapp has dealt himself more than a few tricky hands. Dantly, the older and more dormant of the two, can't remember his past which makes him something of a Pinteresque enigma. We're not given much to go on, but can assume he's of a different generation and in a different place in his life than Burris, his partner of ten years. His most pressing problem is his fear that he doesn't exist.
This is okay until he tries to explain his unease in terms of The Divine Order of Things, something he picked up from a professor-type in the local head shop when they first got to town. Sounds like the playwright talking here, offering up an explanation for the title and some of the play's imagery. Better to have let Dantly describe what he's feeling in terms of his own experience. But, he can't remember his experience. Well, there's the dilemma.
Evett gives us a Burris with a very physical, animal energy. He paces around the room, ricochets off walls and jumps on furniture, pausing occasionally to admire his physique in the mirror, engage in a bit of "short attention span" body building or demonstrate some sexual act or other. It's a decidedly non-verbal expression.
This doesn't jibe with the fact that Rapp has written a character much taken with using a vocabulary slightly beyond his grasp. When Dantly calls him on this, Burris confesses to a kinky attraction to big words. As clearly demonstrated in Nocturne, Rapp is also a lover of language. But, unlike Martin McDonagh, this doesn't always, as seen here, result in the appropriate expression for the situation and character.
The playwright writes himself into a more treacherous corner, though, by setting up expectations. Some pay off (the shaved ass, the hungry bear, and the leaking tits); others don't (the mysterious phone calls, the loaded gun, and the man sharpening a machete in another unit.) With lists like that, one might ask, should we care? Well, yes, because we set out together as if on the course of a "well-made play."
Rapp builds tension and suspense under the pretext that these two guys are stuck with each other until the storm ends, and that we're expected to hang in there with them until the play ends. Instead, Burris offers at the end of act one (almost as if the character were giving the writer an "out") to venture into the storm and find the girl from the head shop that Dantly had a little yen for. The play puts its brakes on and skids into a snow bank right there.
Director Scott Zigler's capable hands enabled last season's production of The Cripple of Inishmann to walk that fine line between the outrageous and the serious. That one passed the sobriety test with flying colors, but he isn't able to keep this one on the road. Or, maybe he and playwright Rapp aren't so sure whether this play belongs on the highway or should take a few detours.
Zigler has, however, shepherded a handsome production. One of the pleasures of theatre-going in the Boston area is the high level of design and execution. Set designer J. Michael Griggs doesn't disappoint. His renderings for the slightly askew "Daniel Boone" room covered in distressed murals depicting Boone's local adventures can be seen online.
Compared to Nocturne, both in tone and execution, this is "Rapp-lite," but that doesn't mean he shouldn't be taken seriously. Nor does it mean that this play doesn't demonstrate the same promise, only that Animals and Plants, perhaps, needs to ferment awhile longer before being consumed again.
Animals and Plants
Presented by the American Repertory Theatre, Robert Brustein, Artistic Director. Performed at the Hasty Pudding Theatre, 12 Holyoke St., Cambridge MA.
Performance Schedule: March 30 - April 15, 2001, remaining performances Tuesday through Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 2pm
Tickets available at the Loeb Drama Center Box Office, 54 Brattle St., Cambridge, by phone at (617) 547-8300 or online. Ticket prices: $25.00 (Tues. - Thurs. evenings and Sun. matinee); $35.00 (Fri. and Sat. evenings) Tickets priced $5.00 less for senior citizens and when purchased online.