Trust the tale, we’re often told, and not the teller. But in theater, the way artists choose to tell the story is all the story we get. Only if we have history, or some other accumulation of outside data, such as a source novel, to act as a corrective, do we have something against which to measure what we’re being told. Otherwise, it’s strictly the theatermaker’s sense of reality against ours; the extent to which the two match is one measure of a play’s validity. But then, of course, you run into another problem with theater: It isn’t “reality,” at least not in the same sense as the world offstage, and no law requires it to represent that world literally. And playwrights, those notoriously tricky creatures, love nothing better than taking advantage of the disparity to bend reality out of shape, in the process doing the same to our heads.
So the Vineyard Theatre should probably post a warning at the entrance to Adam Rapp’s The Metal Children: This is not a realistic play. Despite its hot-button subject, book banning, The Metal Children is, if anything, a guilt-ridden writer’s surreal nightmare, delving deeply into some aspects of its subject, swinging wildly beyond its realm on others, and omitting certain major questions altogether. This is hardly a critical complaint; you might as well complain that Hieronymus Bosch isn’t Vermeer.
Despite its proleptic lurches into and out of realism, The Metal Children derives from actual experience. In addition to the stark, violent, and, for the most part, bluntly naturalistic plays for which New York theatergoers know Rapp, he has published several “young-adult” novels, or YAs, as they’re called, at least one of which, The Buffalo Tree, has undergone censorship travails in some communities because of its sex-and-violence content. Hence a certain autobiographical interest attaches to The Metal Children‘s hero, Tobin Falmouth (Billy Crudup), whose most recent YA offering, also titled The Metal Children, has just been forcibly removed from the high school curriculum in a small town called Midlothia, “famous for its limestone, nuclear power, and the largest Black & Decker factory outlet in America.”
Though everyone in Midlothia seems intimately familiar with Tobin’s novel, all the locally accessible copies have been sequestered, by order of the school board, in a vault generously provided by “the Good Church of Christ.” While most high school girls, and a lot of older women, find the book transcendent, its opponents include not only the church and the school board, but a teen gang that goes about in Porky Pig masks, committing mayhem on the book’s supporters.
Grim as this setup might seem, much of The Metal Children is conducted in the sardonic, raffish spirit of old-style Broadway comedy. Rapp depicts Tobin not as a Galahad rising to defend the freedom to read, but as a solipsistic, self-pitying loser, unable to make his rent, bitter at being trapped in the publishing “ghetto” of YA, and pining for the wife (a bestselling writer herself) who has just dumped him for her young hot-shot editor.
The opening, in which this hapless schnook lets his flamboyantly bossy agent (rendered with hilarious, swishy panache by David Greenspan) bully him into confronting Midlothia’s censors, launches the urban-comic tone. Scene 2, set in Tobin’s room at a Midlothia motel, would veer even deeper into George Abbott hotel-room farce, except that it’s disrupted by eerie events that evoke the paranoid comedy of middle-period Sam Shepard.
While Tobin gets sucked deeper and deeper into Midlothia’s troubling life, that life comes, with increasing irrationality, to resemble the events of his novel. By the time of the big town meeting for which he has traveled there, we’re long past expecting a clarifying debate on adolescents’ right to knowledge. Constitutionality barely peeks into the picture; in the bedlam that ensues, Tobin is by no means the character who emerges with most dignity. Tales stimulate their tellers, too, Rapp seems to suggest, so that tellers and tales may be equally untrustworthy. The final scene, back in Tobin’s apartment, ironically shows the writer’s share of such torments as both creatively and fiscally profitable, however bitter the personal aftertaste they leave.
The mesh of irony and the spells of pure comedy are both new to Rapp’s work, which previously tended to give only a flat-affect picture of its characters’ situations, without comment. It’s hard to tell whether the struggle among The Metal Children‘s variety of tones, amounting at times almost to open warfare, marks an attempt by Rapp to order his material in a more rational way, or simply as an expansion of the subject matter it engulfs. As director, though, Rapp handles the mix of modes with easy assurance, getting a wonderful trio of supporting performances, in addition to Greenspan’s, from Susan Blommaert as the dryly sympathetic motel-keeper, Betsy Aidem as a dour, vulnerable church lady, and Guy Boyd as the bumbling school board chairman. Crudup, appropriating much of Rapp’s own external manner, supplies a gripping portrait of an author in tailspin, and Phoebe Strole, though sometimes inaudible, is always touching as the leader of his teen support group.
Far more finespun than Rapp’s work, Claudia Shear’s Restoration (New York Theatre Workshop) dapples its sweet, light narrative with an equally wide range of tones, from the brash, out-front comedy for which Shear is best-known to a newly meditative philosophic mode. A dowdy, chronically rebellious art restorer (Shear) finagles, through a doting professor who loves her (movingly played by Alan Mandell), one of her world’s plum assignments: to clean Michelangelo’s David. Her varying transactions with the statue itself (wittily realized in Scott Pask’s ingenious set), and with those responsible for it (Tina Benko and Jonathan Cake give particularly fine performances), naturally lead her to a new awareness of herself. As leisurely and spidery-thin as line drawing, this nonchalant, ruefully wise tale sustains its charm easily, with Shear’s intense portrayal of the restorer’s passionate stodginess adding a wash of darker tones to its highly appealing picture.