ADVERTISING AT CURTAINUP
Short Term Listings
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Review
The Metal Children
By Elyse Sommer
It's, as Edward Albee often answers such questions, about two hours long — long enough for us to meet a novelist in his mid-thirties named Tobin Falmouth. His latest book is overdue and his wife, also a writer, has left him for her younger, thinner editor. He's stuck in the genre known as young adult fiction which means a sparsity of literary acclaim and an income that's not big enough to support his drug habit.
The closest Tobin has come to fame and fortune was when his second novel, The Metal Children, was named a 2000 Best Book for Young Adults and was short-listed for the L.A. Times Book Prize. Now, just as he's at a low ebb in his life with his apartment as sorry a mess as his mental state, that second novel is once again causing a stir — but not in a good way, like a Hollywood offer to film it, but as something of a cause célêbre in the conservative town of Midlothia. It's a town not unlike the one that was the setting of The Metal Children in which a group of pregnant teenagers disappear mysteriously and then re- appear as statues in a barren cornfield. It seems that Tobin's book has had unintended consequences that have exploded into a fierce battle between the book's s supporters and opponents.
Among the most ardent supporters are Stacey Kinsella the head of the high school English department and a group of teen aged girls whose enthusiasm has resulted in a number of them becoming pregant. The Midlothians who would ban the book include some Ku Klux Klannish young men and the town's many Christian right wingers. Tobin's agent Bruno thinks it will be good publicity for him to attend the School Board meeting at which it will be determined whether the book will be kept locked in a vault. And so with Bruno financing a rented car, Tobin heads for the Heartland.
The details of the unanticipated effect of Tobin's book on those who teach it, its young readers, and their elders — as well as on the author — are what drive the plot of the play which is also named The Metal Children. The fictional Tobin and his book are actually stand-ins for Rapp who besides writing and directing plays has also penned seven young adult novels, one of which, The Buffalo Tree was censored in the town of Muhlenberg, Pennsylvania for its explicit sexual content. (It was about life in a youth detention center and in no way like Tobin's more fantastical book.)
This not being a docudrama, the play spins off from what actually happened in relation to Rapp's novel into a story that spins off into much more fanciful territory. As Tobin arrives in Midlothia to have his say at the upcoming school board meeting, his novel takes on a life of its own with Tobin getting himself actively involved with the anti-Midlothian sect that his novel unintentionally seeded.
Actually the framing device for Tobin's descent into a mid-America rabbit hole and becoming embroiled in a fable of teenagers as weirdly independent Stepford Wives is much more straightforward and realistic than most of Rapp's growing oeuvre. With Billy Crudup to play Rapp's alter ego as well as an A-Plus ensemble to show up in his Greenwich Studio and the various locations in Midlothia, it's a fun ride — enough so to make you buy into the at times incompatible mix of realism and surrealism with its exploration of how a story born during a fevered, druggy dream can end up igniting readers' imaginations and assault intensely held beliefs in ways never intended.
Crudup is aptly depressed, bothered and bewildered by his go-nowhere life. He handles the half full-half empty glass outcome of his trip to Midlothia with a good deal of poignancy. Consequently his final interchange with the Midlothian girls' rebel in chief Vera (an excellent Phoebe Strobe) is not quite so obviously reminiscent of the sin and repent finales that were de rigueur during the heyday of True Confessions and True Story.
David Greemspan invests Tobin's agent with one of those pure Greenspan over-the-top personalities that only he can get away with. Betsy Aidem is wittily cast as Tobin's sleazy neighbor as well as Midlothia's spokesperson for the Christian Right. Guy Boyd, a veteran of Adam Rapp's plays, is imposing as the seemingly fair minded Otto Hurley, the man in charge of the School Board meeting. Rapp, wearing his director's hat also draws good work from the rest of the ensemble. Greenspan like Aidem has anoter small role (as a priest-- really!) and several other actors multi-task.
The Vineyard Theatre has supported this world premier with an elegant production so that the story evokes its various locations with sophisticated stagecraft. David Korin's striking turntable set opens and closes in Tobin's apartment, but with completely different details. The flip side of that apartment is Tobin's Midlothian hotel room which finds a number of key characters knocking at the door. A bright red curtain, some metal stools and an American Flag are the basic ingredients for the School Board meeting.
To Rapp's credit, except for the hoodlum contingent, the people of Midlothia are not presented as monsters. Tobin's decision to let himself temporarily become a character in the situation spawned by his book, is pure fantasy. It's not quite so fantastical to consider that the writers whose words and ideas leap off the page or screen can affect the people they reach unanticipated and sometimes dangerous ways.