Billy Crudup and David Greenspan in The Metal Children at The Vineyard Theatre. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
BOTTOM LINE: A new play by a provocative playwright with a fantastic cast - it's an all-around rewarding theatre experience, though it's not a flawless production.
There is much to carry your imagination away in Adam Rapp's new play, The Metal Children, now playing off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre. The fantasy, suspense, mystery, and humanity all prove effective tools for engaging the audience, and Rapp's story-within-a-story is filled with intrigue. For these reasons, The Metal Children is a riveting ride. Moral questions that never pander give this modern tale another layer. Intellectually speaking, this story kicks ass.
Billy Crudup stars as Tobin, a sulky fiction writer who has found a modicum of success in the young adult genre but has recently hit a wall now that his wife has left him and his new novel is overdue. Adding to the drama is Midlothia, a small town in middle America whose school district has banned Tobin's book The Metal Children from the high school curriculum. The community is deeply divided over the issue. Tobin's agent Bruno (a coddling David Greenspan) convinces him to go to Midlothia to attend the next school board meeting to state his case and offer his insight.
Tobin obligingly travels to the heartland where he meets some interesting folks, including the school's liberal English teacher Stacey (Connor Barrett), the owner of the town's sole motel, Edith (Susan Blommaert), and Edith's rebellious niece Vera (Phoebe Strole). Some of the townspeople loathe the book and its blasphemous teachings (it's about teen pregnancy). Others, like Vera, are fervently in support of how it represents teenage girls and their struggles. Vera, who is Tobin's biggest fan, has started both a website in support of the book as well as a community of girls who attempt to live out the book's teachings.
And that's when Tobin realizes he's in too deep. Written ten years prior, he barely remembers what it's about, let alone intends for anyone to take it as gospel. Tobin quickly discovers his career and safety are on the line as the debate spirals out of control in the small, conservative town, with the religious right on one side and his liberal supporters on the other. As Vera says in her speech to the school board "To remove art from a culture is to name that culture dead!"
Rapp's script is astutely concocted and as the tale weaves from Tobin's New York apartment to the Midlothia motel room, to the school board meeting, to the schoolyard itself, I felt myself immersed in the unfolding action. The layers of controversy are explained in a way that feels well-paced yet urgent, over-exaggerated yet dire. And these intricacies, coupled with the suspense (there are Stephen King moments) keep the story active. By the middle, the audience can almost see both sides of the story: the book isn't inherently dangerous, or is it?
What prevents this play from being incredible is presumably the direction, also by Rapp. The tone of the production is unclear, like it doesn't really know what it wants to be. Is it a quirky story with grand caricatures (take Tobin's trashy sex buddy neighbor in the first scene) or is it a realistic commentary on the interpretation of art? Some moments are farcical (Tobin dumps his orange juice into his fish tank) and some are gravely serious (the final encounter between Vera and Tobin). Had the production held tight to the notion that the peripheral characters in Midlothia are exaggerations of their personas (keeping a parallel with how everyone's reaction to the book is exaggerated), then the audience might get the sense that Tobin is the only normal one in a sea of misinterpretation. Instead, there are realistic moments that ground several of the characters, keeping them in a vague limbo between fiction and non-fiction, muddying the perception that the audience craves for the sake of clarity. I wonder if this might have been remedied if Rapp had stepped out of the role of director and let another set of eyes guide the production.
Tonal inconsistencies aside, and for its first go-around, this production is a solid telling of a wonderful tale. I appreciate when theatre takes me through a series of emotions, and this story kept me rapt throughout. With Crudup as a sort of tragic hero, caught up in a battle or morality he never intended to enter, he finds himself better off in the end. He is a trustworthy and sympathetic lead and I was glad to be on his journey. Strole plays Vera with a scrappy optimism and makes an endearing counterpart to Tobin's snarky pessimist. Several outstanding performances and a script full of twists make The Metal Children an entertaining play, to be sure. It's smart, it's witty, it's thought-provoking and modern; if it sounds appealing, you'll probably really dig it.
(The Metal Children plays at The Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street through June 13th. Performances are Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesdays through Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 3pm and 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $65 and are available at vineyardtheatre.org or by calling 212.353.0303. For more show info visit vineyardtheatre.org.)