The Metal Children
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
May 16, 2010
"Somber" isn't a word one usually associates with playwright-provocateur Adam Rapp. But somberness permeates his new play, The Metal Children, like a creeping fog. Gone are the excessive nudity and (for the most part) violence of previous works, replaced by a poignant sense of introspection and a flair for civic rhetoric. Rapp's trademark sense of menace remains intact, though, and the tense dichotomy between old and new elements makes this one of his most satisfying plays to date.
Inspired by events from Rapp's own life, The Metal Children focuses on the amusingly named Tobin Falmouth, a New York writer who specializes in young adult fiction. He's a textbook case of severe depression: sentenced to an extended self-confinement in his dingy West Village apartment, he's broke and his wife has just left him. But, after learning that his most recent novel has been banned by the school board of a small Midwestern town—they condemn its "salacious immoral content"—Tobin travels to the heartland to defend his work, only to find a community embroiled in a divisive moral, religious, and cultural war.
He also discovers that some of the most unnerving and fantastical parts of his novel are inexplicably occurring in the town, leaving its citizens both scared and confused.
Rapp establishes his protagonist right off the bat with sharp, accurate humor. We get an idea of how well Tobin has gone into hiding when one of his neighbors admits she didn't know he was a writer: "I thought he sold knives," she says, having recently bought one off of him. (It turns out Tobin's drug dealer is none the wiser, either.) Moments later, when Tobin becomes sheepish about the disreputable state of his apartment, his agent barks, "Don't apologize for your apartment: you're a novelist!"
After that, however, the rest of play is tempered by Tobin's profound sense of mourning over the end of his marriage. With his mental and emotional equilibrium out of sorts, he succumbs to glaring errors in judgment: in one instance, Tobin remains in his hotel room after it's been vandalized; later, he finds himself unwisely drawn to a local teen girl. Rapp's writing is so strong, though, that he makes Tobin's gaping sense of listlessness easy to identify with. The high point of The Metal Children comes at the community school board meeting when Tobin reveals the intensely personal reasons why he wrote his book, a public confession that reveals a shell-shocked man at the end of his rope.
The Metal Children also displays some bigger-picture civic-mindedness, indulging both sides of the censorship debate that incites the events of the play and making some convincing arguments all around. The town conservatives understandably express concern over a book that features (and which they, therefore, think endorses) rape, violence, and abortion. But when local unrest reaches the point where the high school teacher who assigned the book gets his front lawn torched, one has to wonder why protesting a kids' book is so important. On the flip side, one of Tobin's schoolgirl supporters eloquently points out that "to remove art from a culture is to name that culture dead."
Rapp, who also doubles as director of the Vineyard Theatre's exemplary production, does an impressive job of handling the play's many tonal shifts and bustling thematic elements. Billy Crudup delivers a quietly tour-de-force performance as Tobin, showing us his disintegration through actions and behavior as much as through his words. David Greenspan is hilarious as Tobin's brash agent: he only appears in two scenes but he makes his presence felt in both of them. As Vera, the townie who leads the defense of Tobin's book, Phoebe Strole brings convincing dimension to a role that could easily be didactic. Rounding out the rest of this excellent company are Betsy Aidem, Connor Barrett, Susan Blommaert, Guy Boyd, Halley Wegryn Gross, and Jessy Hodges, all of whom make searingly memorable contributions.
In the end, though, the most salient point that The Metal Children makes is the idea that people engage with art in their own individual ways, almost always in ways that the creator didn't intend. And that can't be stopped by anyone. Does that make the creator responsible for the multitude of interpretations his or her work may evoke? That's up to the audience to decide. I won't color this review with my own conclusion, but I'm confident that anyone who sees this excellent production will leave the theatre with an opinion.