A third of the way through Adam Rapp’s slacker fantasy Finer Noble Gases, a character takes a leak onstage. It’s not a simulated pee done off to the corner somewhere, invisible to spectators, but a live urination—clear as water (at least on the night I saw it) and exhibiting the propulsion and duration one normally associates with an anxious racehorse. The perpetrator, one of four members of a punk band living in a derelict East Village apartment, carries out his duties buck naked and facing the audience. And though he considerately aims into a receptacle, viewers with queasy constitutions are advised to avoid the first few rows of the theater.
Finer Noble Gases boasts a clear disregard for the boundaries of good taste (other high points involve vomit and phlegm), but its real act of transgression is narrative in nature. The play’s two protagonists, rockers Chase (Paul Sparks) and Staples (Robert Beitzel), spend their time ingesting brightly colored pills, staring at the television, and occasionally bursting into a stream of non sequiturs. Inseparable but mutually insufferable, they are a present-day Vladimir and Estragon—hoboes with nowhere to go, waiting indefinitely for some one to rescue them. The other members of the band (Michael Chernus and Ray Rizzo) come and go randomly, dragging behind them shards of a plot that deliberately refuse to coalesce into a whole. To paraphrase Beckett critic Vivian Mercier, Finer Noble Gases is a play in which nothing happens not just twice, but six or seven times.
The arrival of a neighbor, a banker aptly named Grey, signals the first intrusion of reality into Rapp’s parallel universe. Chase invites the corporate drone to the apartment under the pretense of an injured back, and for a while the play flirts with becoming a slapstick farce. (The immensely talented Sparks could sustain an entire vaudeville act with his spastic tics alone.) But Rapp is too restless a playwright to succumb to the ordinary, and soon the barbiturate haze of the first half is back in full force. The play’s title refers to those chemical elements that don’t react. It’s a clunky metaphor for the lethargic bodies on display, but given Rapp’s view of slackerdom as a kind of installation art, it helps turn what feels like nothing into something of hypnotic beauty.
The production culminates in a live music performance. (The cast members are part of the real-life band LESS.) Thunderous drumbeats herald a dramatic schism that recasts the entire play in a new light. Was it all a dream? Rapp doesn’t answer, ending on a note that is emotionally turbulent and poetically cryptic. Like the best punk lyrics.