One of writer-director Adam Rapp's young adult novels was banned by a high school in a suburban town for its violent and sexually explicit imagery, just like Tobin Falmouth (Billy Crudup) in Rapp's new play. This hardly makes The Metal Children autobiographic, though. The ban's consequences and the author's subsequent visit to the fictional Midwestern town veer so far into magical realist territory and fairy tale imagery that the narrative takes on a fable-like quality. Its final moral seems bizarrely redemptive and reconciliatory towards a protagonist, played with wonderfully affecting restraint by Crudup, who has been self-destructive, self-loathing and generally misanthropic up to that point. Still, one gets the impression that Rapp is writing to redeem himself.
From the start, Tobin's moral and artistic ambivalence coats every surface of his cluttered West Village apartment (props to scenic designer David Korins) in layers of filth as he shoots a video for the citizens of Midlothia, addressing their accusations that his book The Metal Children is similarly nauseating. Tobin's literary agent Bruno (David Greenspan), trying not to step into too many gross-out gags, snaps at his sheepish video presence: "Don't apologize for the messy apartment: you're a novelist!" Turns out this will be the play's excuse for more than just his messy apartment. He clears space on the floor by brushing trash into piles, he dumps the left-over orange juice that he uses simultaneously as breakfast and toothpaste into his fish tank. Tobin's housekeeping ineptitude reflects debilitating intellectual and emotional stagnation: his wife, a more successful author, left him for her editor, and his latest novel is nine months late. Bruno sends him to Midlothia to defend his book in front of the school board and, he hopes, the press.
Rapp is rarely one for sentimentality, at least not for long: he may deploy cliches momentarily only to dash them for further provocation. His heartland community resembles an archetypal American Anytown set dangerously off-kilter, toppling over into chaos. Midlothians are electrified and polarized over the book ban. Tobin's motel room has been tagged much like a passage in his novel before he even gets there, and increasingly alarming elements of his fiction come true thereafter. The most troubling of these is Vera (Phoebe Strole), a truly fanatic fan, trying to start a commune by getting herself and a couple dozen fellow high schoolers pregnant. The sense of dread hanging over the town, emanating from the stage, builds throughout.
It's a pity so much of the narrative hangs on Strole's performance as this bratty, Ellen Page-ish teen, which except during the superb climactic assembly scene—where her cold speechifying makes perfect sense—lacks the commitment of fellow Midlothians like her aunt, the quirky motel manager (Betsy Aidem) and the terrified, closeted English teacher Stacey (delightful scene-stealer Connor Barrett). Her fleeting, flickering rapport with Crudup makes Tobin's eventual recovery more problematic. Their unconvincing relationship undermines the already flimsy concluding argument Rapp makes: that artists, just because they are artists, are absolved of any responsibility for their actions beyond the purview of their conscience. Perhaps if another director handled his potentially superb play, the outcome might be less worrisome, but Rapp's insistence on directing his own work means we can only blame him for its problems.
(photo credit: Carol Rosegg)