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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Adam Rapp has an undeniable gift for descriptive writing. He knows how to get right to the point of his story. As soon as the spotlight focuses on the central character and narrator (Dallas Roberts)) of Nocturne, which just opened at New York Theatre Workshop, he declares "Fifteen years ago, I killed my sister!"
That statement by the thirty-two-year-old man who we will only know as The Son paves the way for the playwright to unspool the events leading up to and following that traumatic event -- the seeds of dysfunctional relationships with father who pushes his son beyond the limits of his talents as a pianist. . . the accident that tears the family asunder, sending the son to New York where he has a minor success as a novelist but cannot shake off the shadow of the tragedy. . . the eventual return to make peace with the father. The directness and plainness of that opening announcement also serves as a launching pad for one of Mr. Rapp's numerous and elaborate linguistic detours.
Nocturne is in fact a labyrinth of detailed descriptions festooned with brilliant similes and metaphors. The richness of its language is the play's strength and its weakness. Poetical as it is, the lyrical thinking out loud style seems more suited to the page than the stage. We have a mother and father and sister and even a girl friend but their voices are muted by that of the playwright. With little or no dialogue to bring them to life, these characters are primarily animated illustrations for a lengthy interior monologue or, as defined by Grieg's "Nocturne" (the inspiration for the title and musical leitmotif), a symphonic poem.
While monologues, especially in recent years, have often proved their potential for being theatrically satisfying narratives (think Conor McPherson) and Mr. Rapp certainly has a story for his monologist, his skills as a playwright have been overwhelmed by his plush language. His gorgeous descriptions make you itch to write them down -- "the blonde house full of formica" with the big black Steinway that's "a homicide waiting to happen". . . the accident summed up as "destiny's poker". . . the girl friend named The Red-Headed Girl with the Gray-Green Eyes because her eyes are reminders of "Hemingway's Caribbean sea". Powerful as these word pictures are, however, they do little to turn a colorful recital into a full-bodied exploration of how an accident involving a child affects the survivors, especially the inadvertent "killer".
Fortunately, Dallas Roberts, handles the often unwieldy text that has been assigned to him with intensity and empathy and makes the most of occasional touches of humor. Will LeBow, gives a shattering portrayal both in the nonverbal scene that sends his son fleeing to New York and in the powerful father and son reunion where he does get more than a few words to speak. Candice Brown, silently and with just a few lines of dialogue, conveys the mother's descent into permanent clinical depression. The other two actors, especially young Nicole Pasquale as the ghost of the little sister, do well as the animated images haunting the narrator.
To enlarge the format of the usual sixty to ninety-minute monologue, director Marcus Stern and his design team have created a physically dynamic theater piece, starting with a box, aptly blood-red, which has the narrator at the edge of the stage describing the accident while his nine-year-old sister, in a frilly dress and saddle shoes, is upstage, often echoing his movements.
Set designer Jones also provides a sort of window display setup to frame the father mourning beside the little girl in her coffin, a hospital scene between the narrator and his mother and the final father-son encounter. The most painterly of these images depicts the narrator and his girl friend framed in the doorway of a shower stall, the back-to-back pose underscoring the description of the sexually go-nowhere relationship.
There's one scene in the narrator's East Village apartment in which a claw-footed bathtub is attached to the wall. The narrator sits in the empty tub, alking away while the ghostly little sister is on the book-strewn floor typing on his Underwood. It's a fascinating exercise in optical illusion but, like Rapp's language, it outdoes the story. Having the self-described ; "resilient narrator" step out of the father's picture-framed bedroom adds an ungainly element to the surreal staging. David Remedios' mix of sounds and John Abrosone's moody lighting effectively take us from one movement of Rapp's symphonic poem to the next.
Beautiful as Stern and company's stagecraft is, it would be interesting to see Mr. Rapp pare down his monologue to ninety minutes and give his narrator a chance to tell his story in a more straightforward manner. The resulting manuscript might well reveal the potentially first-rate playwright now dominated by a first-rate prose writer.