New York is famed for its decrepit real estate: sagging ceilings, roaches, rats in toilet bowls. Yet no matter how insalubrious your apartment building, it likely won’t infect you with bubonic plague.
Unless you’re a resident in the tenement Adam Rapp conjures in Nursing, the final script in his Hallway Trilogy, now at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. It’s the year 2053 and science has conquered all illness. But in a crumbling edifice on the Lower East Side, an entrepreneur has opened “a live disease and nursing exhibit.” In a glassed-in space on the third-floor hallway, volunteers receive injections of history’s worst ailments. Paying clientele, equipped with surgical masks, come to watch and cheer their pain, enacting a perverse catharsis.
Not all of Hallway’s plays function as such palpable allegories of suffering, though each reveals Rapp’s continuing preoccupation with the cruelties people inflict on each other and themselves. In the first play, Rose, which occurs in that same hallway in 1953, a young and troubled actress (Katherine Waterston) searches for the recently deceased Eugene O’Neill. That piece ends in death, as does Paraffin, set in the same space on the day of the 2003 blackout and concerning a grievous marital spat. Nursing closes not with an isolated suicide or murder, but with the promise of a dire epidemic.
While the living room, the bedroom, and the kitchen have become familiar theatrical milieus, few plays are set in corridors. Rapp never really clarifies why he’s made this structural choice. He doesn’t explore the tension between public space and private space, which such a setting might suggest, nor does the hallway operate as a metaphor for his characters. Yes, it’s a transitional zone, but while many of the plays’ figures seem unsettled, others appear secure. At times the hallway suggests Rapp’s reluctance to get on with the job of playwriting: In the first two plays, many scenes show people poised just outside of doorways, uncertain whether or not to enter. All the plays reveal an anxiety about how to balance character study with plot revelation and none of them completely negotiate that balance. Nursing comes closest to achieving it, but its scenes suffer a structural sameness.
Rapp directs Rose, Daniel Aukin Paraffin, and Trip Cullman Nursing. All share a 14-member cast, each actor appearing in two plays. Rapp has brought in several of the Amoralists, with whom he recently collaborated. Aukin and Cullman seem to have imported a few of their favorites as well (Julianne Nicholson, Maria Dizzia, Logan Marshall Green). Because of the shared cast and each script’s distinct period and tone, it’s difficult to see the particular choices each director has made, though to put it broadly, Rapp pushes toward the broadly comedic, Aukin focuses on the interplay between characters, and Cullman concentrates on establishing Nursing’s peculiar environment.
In each play, as in nearly all of Rapp’s work, characters have to say and do extremely upsetting things. Hallway’s cast must shit, strip, bleed, fuck, and moan—to say nothing of the young man who has his boils lanced. This seems itself a species of cruelty, to visit so much pain and exposure on the piece’s actors (to say nothing of the audience), but what renders Rapp such an interesting writer is his deeply romantic heart—beating right there beneath the filth-caked ass and infected arms. The naïve and often frustrated idea of love as revelation and salvation persists even through the plays’ exigencies. For all of Hallway’s scarred floors, grimy walls, and bare fluorescent bulbs, Rapp finds beauty here, too.