I had a momentary fantasy while weighing up the first two plays on this week’s list: I envisioned the hero of Nocturne marrying the heroine of Blur. It made sense: He couldn’t cope with his unforgiving father; she was battling her overprotective mother. And while hero was finding himself impotent with the beautiful red-haired girl who nurtured him out of his defensive shell, heroine was having jangled nerve ends with her live-in—an affectionate imbecile with zero upward mobility and less ambition. On top of everything else, both hero and heroine were recovering trauma victims: He, at age 17, had unintentionally killed his little sister in a car accident for which he wasn’t to blame (used car, defective brake line); she, around the same time, had found herself suddenly going blind from a hereditary condition. Her oncoming blindness would counterbalance his sexual dysfunction; his compulsive reading habits, if practiced aloud, could partly alleviate her dimming vision. And given the circumstances, the issue of whether or not to have children wouldn’t become a problem.
The marriage would fail ultimately, though, because these two people could never settle down in one genre together. The hero of Nocturne, identified simply as the Son, is his own narrator; whatever else author Adam Rapp has or hasn’t done—and he hasn’t written a play—he’s at least given his main character a firm, unifying narrative voice. Nocturne moves like an illustrated short story, in scenes that are described rather than lived, but it moves steadily, in implacable sequence: the horrible accident; the family’s devastation; the hero’s escape to New York; the reclusive life poured out in writing; the tentative emergence, through a sympathetic girlfriend’s ministrations, with only partial success; the reconciliation with the dying father; the end. If some of these tableaux sound familiar, it’s because we’ve seen them before, though Rapp’s pellucid, confident tone makes most of them sound fresh. (The girlfriend’s ultra-patient supportiveness is hard to credit, as is the absence, at every stage, of friends, neighbors, extended family, ministers, counselors, or therapists.)
Like a running commentary by an overexcited sympathizer, Marcus Stern’s production gives each tableau a streamlined, surrealistically heightened revision; Christine Jones’s stunning if self-consciously showy set, lushly lit by John Ambrosone, positions each event in a different boxy alcove, like an object on display. A gunshot stands in for the car crash; instead of a reclining chair, the hero’s father dies on a daybed, his head in his son’s lap, Pietà-like. The images are striking, the prose crisp, the story not without truth. But it all feels artificial, constructed for effect rather than essentialized from experience. Maybe that’s why Dallas Roberts as the Son, charged with the daunting task of speaking nearly the entire text, can’t seem to find a secure resting place within it from which to address us. He asserts, he trembles, he mutters, all the while displaying a frenetic emotionality that’s surely miles away from the hero’s numbed composure—about as far, say, as a La-Z-Boy is from a Pietà.
Dot DiPrima, the heroine of Melanie Marnich’s Blur, could never marry such a withdrawn and abstract figure as Nocturne‘s Son. She’s takes initiative; when her misfortune strikes—it’s called Leber’s Optic Atrophy or LOA—she asks, as the Son never does, “Why me?” To which no answer’s given. Dot’s mom (named Mom) knows more about it than we get to hear. She might be divorced, an unwed mother, or a rape victim—she always refers to Dot’s father as “that stranger.” But she knows, though she won’t admit it till Dot confronts her, that LOA descends genetically through the female line, and is most often contracted by male children. The opthalmologist has nothing to offer Dot but ever thicker glasses and warnings of the impending darkness; the local priest, a fuzzy-headed goofball out of an SCTV sketch, finds himself losing his faith as a result of her trauma.
The combination of Mom’s protective stifling and her deceit makes Dot leave home, falling in with some low-life pals who aren’t so low after all: a girl with a mild facial deformity and a resultant eagerness to be tough, and the lovable dimwit who becomes Dot’s guy, a cage cleaner at the local zoo. (Betcha somebody’s been reading House of Blue Leaves.) Out of her trauma, Dot collects a communelike extended family, she and the cage cleaner welcoming into their apartment the tough girl, the priest, and eventually even Mom. The fragility of this coalition is demonstrated when an encounter with someone who’s already blind sends Dot into a panic, and her flatmates seem to turn on her (on her birthday to boot). Matters are smoothed over, but the darkness still impends, waiting for Dot to get used to it.
Shaky and sometimes factitious as narrative, Marnich’s script at any rate has action. Her problem as a writer—uncertainty of tone—is the antithesis of Rapp’s. Mom and priest are cartoon figures, exaggerated into jocose monstrosity; Francis, the tough girl, who starts as a distinctive person, is reduced to a stage convenience. Only Dot, the prima donna, and her zoophile beau, Joey, march through the play’s arbitrary scattering of scenes with consistently human voices. It can’t just be the strength of the two performers, Angela Goethals and Chris Messina, that causes the discrepancy. The centerless priest is played by wonderful Bill Raymond; the more enchanting he gets, the more intrusive and pointless the character seems. Goethals and Messina, in contrast, inhabit roles that are strongly written to begin with. Unlike Marnich’s caricatures, Joey’s perceived in the round, his weakness and slow wit placed in a validating context (we know much more about his family than we do about Mom’s) and varied with surprising bursts of passion. A smart actor seizes such moments, and Messina’s very smart, moving up to these passages from inside the character’s dimness.
And then there’s Goethals. I don’t know how old she was when she first knocked me out, at Second Stage in 1991. Here she is, a decade later, believable as a 17-year-old, stage center for most of a 100-minute event, with never a false move or an instant’s excess. Her work is seamless: convincing, touching, and apparently effortless. She’s a pylon supporting the script in its frequent sags, an angel floating on its surface when it lifts. Lynne Meadow’s unobtrusive direction surely has something to do with her success.
The hero of John Kelly’s performance piece Brother, another loner, meets someone, falls in love, loses him, and mourns him. Then he mourns Matthew Shepard. Then he meets, but is separated from, a new love. If this sounds a little familiar and a little desultory, there are times when it seems to be both. Built on a four-song cycle by Kelly and David Del Tredici, who accompanies him on piano, the piece incorporates texts by two contemporary poets, plus Del Tredici’s lovely folklike setting, from Final Alice, of Lewis Carroll’s acrostic epigraph to Alice in Wonderland. (You may wonder why the emphatically gay hero of Brother would want to spell out the name “Alice Pleasance Liddell” in verse.) It also incorporates video designs by Kelly, a chunk of found video, and an elaborate scene-and-costume change accompanied by a c&w soundtrack before the “Matthew Shepard” song.
A lot of the pieces, unsurprisingly, are beautiful in themselves. Even shaven-headed and buffed up, Kelly’s panicked-Pierrot presence, all haunting eyes and flesh-tingling countertenor tones, has lost none of its charisma. Del Tredici, as both accompanist and composer, poses him unstinting demands, some of which are excessive: In a small space like P.S. 122, the thundering piano and mic’d voice don’t bring out the best in Kelly’s sound. Both Kelly’s lyrics—helter-skelter wordstreams—and Del Tredici’s music, with its insistent ostinati and crashing polytonal chords, have a self-obsessed romanticizing quality that may, depending on your predilections, either sweep you along or make you feel pushed aside. The interruptions of the cycle—by the visual elements, by Kelly’s self-choreographed moves, by breaks in tone when he chats like a cabarettist—shatter the evening’s coherence rather than enriching its texture. I felt emotionally hooked only once, when Kelly, lying on a strip of green cloth meant to represent the grass above his dead lover’s grave, sang repeatedly, “I’m here oh I’m here.” Still, both men are artists who know that it’s always better to take a resplendent risk than a tiny one: That way, even if you fall flat, what the audience remembers is the splendor of the effort, not the flatness of the result.