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The Metal Children

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Billy Crudup
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The more Adam Rapp plays I see, the more convinced I become that he has less a voice than a gimmick. Whether his plays are set in America, Amsterdam, or the apocalypse's aftermath, whether they document solidly middle-class folks or society's castoffs, and whether they're intended as realistic or un-, they're all populated with on-the-edge characters who tend to display the same bloated, cynical relationship with consumerism in all its forms. Any brand name is, by definition, to be scorned, whether it's a product, a person, or an idea. This wouldn't be a bad thing if all his plays deal with this idea and no other.

But that's not the case. Rapp's latest, The Metal Children, which just opened at the Vineyard Theatre in a production the playwright himself directed, is as far as you can get from his end-of-rational-existence plays like Faster and Finer Noble Gases on one end of the spectrum and his rockiness-of-romance works Blackbird and Red Light Winter on the other. You would think that its plot, about a New York author who travels to a Midwestern hamlet to defend his inaugural novel against the church-addled community that's banned it from the school library, would need to be told straight to even have a chance of getting its point across. And you would probably be right.

Rapp, however, doesn't let that stop him. Despite a deceptively mundane subject (based—very loosely, one presumes—on an incident from his own life), The Metal Children is his most Rappian—and, hence, his most inappropriately Rappian—play yet. Among the oddities: malcontents flinging hams, rabble-rousers dressed in Porky Pig masks and simultaneously wielding nunchucks and vacuum cleaners, birthing cults, naturist communes in Idaho, children transforming into statues, copious gold face paint, divine possession, hotel-room graffiti, and downtown doyen David Greenspan playing both a literary agent and a priest. If this can be considered normal for Rapp, it certainly can't be for anyone else.

This gaping disparity between the tale Rapp is trying to spin and the all-too-familiar tools he's using to try to tell it is what prevents him from delivering something that feels any more genuine or honest than, say, the dullard-cartoons he tried to pass off as people in Essential Self-Defense three years ago. His usual language is as appropriate for this scenario, which is supposed to be about the tense relationship between authors and the people who read them, as would be Spanglish for Queen Elizabeth II's annual Christmas address. You sense, from beginning to end, that Rapp is far too comfortable with these methods to give them up, even when they do irreparable harm to everything they touch.

They do here, in part because they're poorly chosen and in part because none of the actors is a natural interpreter of Rapp's style, someone like Paul Sparks with an innate quirkiness that automatically extracts some shred of meaning from nonsense. The lead here is Billy Crudup, sturdy, handsome, and clear-eyed to a fault as novelist Tobin Falmouth. Tobin is supposed to be recovering from slashing professional rejections and abandonment by his wife some two months ago, but Crudup slumming in sweats and a T-shirt registers as more suave and stylish than most people do in full-out evening wear. So when he finally collects himself enough to decamp to Midlothia ("a small community in the American heartland") to defend his novel (titled, of course, The Metal Children), you don't feel that he's going to be able to deal with these people at all on their level.

Phoebe Strole and Billy Crudup
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Yet his spiritual kinship with certain of them is crucial for the action that unfolds once he arrives. Tobin's an avatar of hope for not just the gawky teacher who assigned the now-banned book, Stacey Kinsella (Connor Barrett), but also for the student leading the revolutionary charge, Vera Dundee (Phoebe Strole), who wants to pick a lot more of Tobin than just his mind. Yet as the three variously chat, dropping the obligatory, lugubriously inserted references to headcheese, the Eureka Sanitaire S677A, and Swanson microwave dinners, you're somehow less able to focus on their shared quest than on their united devotion to arcane and obtuse elements of modern living.

You wonder whether even the rebelling teenagers of Midlothia would think in quite these terms—exactly what you shouldn't do. In many of Rapp's plays, the strangeness acts as a suffusive shared experience that can corral or reject characters depending on their relationship to it. But here, untethered from reality, the lines and narrative twists that might make sense in other shows—the crusading children, devoted to acting out events from Tobin's novel, are soon subjected to debilitating side-effects they didn't anticipate—seem desperate more than profound, contrived rather than shocking.

Because the performance styles vary wildly—from Crudup's affected, pseudo-Shakespearean take on the mock-tragic Tobin to Strole's whiny and anxiously adolescent Vera, to the lovably dopey Barrett and Susan Blommaert (as Vera's caretaking aunt), to Greenspan apparently playing himself—you can never identify any of these people as occupying the same dramatic universe the writing insists they share. Rapp's direction is flat, almost stodgy, in how it unquestioningly accepts its surroundings' sadness as the only attitude worth addressing. And it's not well matched by David Korins's set, which is a dynamic series of sliding and rotating pieces that capture just the kind of improvisatory invention Tobin supposedly deployed in his book. As with almost everything else here, you wait for the pieces to come together, and they never quite do.

The second act improves on the first, if only because instead of piling on the Rappisms it contemplates how innocuously chosen words can secretly become world-changing. That's the real theme of the play, and when it's allowed to come through, The Metal Children almost works an exploration of how everyone, whether from the coasts or from "flyover country," interprets that message differently. But too often the only unavoidable war is the one between Rapp the innovator and Rapp the pragmatist, neither of whom has figured out that the best way to tell a story about the dangers of telling and selling stories may be to just tell it, and leave any ironic interpretation to the audience. Rapp's a serial commenter, but this is one case where his saying less really might have said much, much more.

The Metal Children
Through June 13
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15 Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Vineyard Theatre

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