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Theatrical Rule No. 148: Beware plays with typewriters. Especially manual typewriters. Especially Underwood manual typewriters amid piles of old books. These plays are about the Writer—the early struggles, the breakthrough debut, the problematic follow-up, and the inevitable slide into obscurity, drinking, and undergraduate teaching. Valentines for Greenwich Village and harangues about Middle America? Mandatory. Hair-tearing dialogues a la Burton and Taylor clock in every 20 minutes; insight and noncliches are as rare as snow in June.
Well, at least Nocturne skips the dialogues, and it never even makes it to the follow-up. With a sole narrator whose logorrhea defends him against a traumatic memory, the young and much-lauded playwright Adam Rapp has given us a little twist on the old genre, a writer who describes life in whole pages while he’s living it. (Unfortunately, the title of the book would be Portrait of the Narcissist as a Young Man.) If you dig reading the thesaurus from cover to cover, the Studio Theatre’s new production of Nocturne is for you.
“Fifteen years ago I killed my sister,” says the play’s narrator, the Son (Scott Fortier)—before immediately launching into a dozen variations on the sentence. The Son enters playing a soulful riff on a saxophone, but his prodigious linguistic scattings are less jazz than something akin to Tourette’s syndrome. He cannot stop himself from detailing the world—from the musical keys of sounds to the pungent qualities of decay, be it of bodies or the suburban deadness of his native Peoria. “His fury has a smell like pork….His hair not grey, but a chemical, womanish yellow,” he tells us of his father (Timothy Rice)—this as the old man (in a storm of grief) is inserting a pistol in the Son’s overactive mouth.
It was in Peoria, at 17, that the Son drove his family’s car a little too fast and may or may not have run over something but very definitely hit a tree when the brakes failed—and next saw his sister lying decapitated in the street. As about everything else, the Son has a lot to say about this, and not only at disturbing length but with a cruelly objectifying style. “Her head,” he notes, seeing the scene before him, “has rolled over into the Petersons’ driveway as if it is a ball or a fugitive picnic toy.” Then he replays the scene over and over, substituting different angles and details like a videographer digitally altering a tape. For a moment you have sympathy for the Son, trapped by a stuttering memory that’s provoked his hypereloquence. He blames himself for the death—and thinks everyone else does, too.
But Rapp squanders your compassion. The Son turns out to be a first-class jerk: For him, people are either specimens pinned to a board or cartoons of themselves. Visiting his dying father years later, he imagines the bedside morphine plunger as an eject button that could fling the poor man across the river. And his chronic contempt for his suburban upbringing—”the sedans sitting there like enormous termites…the birdhouse without birds”—is cheaply won and far too easy.
Of course, the Son escapes, and not just to New York City but to St. Mark’s Place, where he works in a used bookstore and eventually writes a novel, about a young man from Peoria who kills his sister in a car accident and moves to New York to work in a used bookstore and write a novel…(A wordless girlfriend—luminously played by Kelly Ewing—encourages him to finish the book and then helps him sell it, all while having a saint’s patience with his impotence. As a thank you, he dumps her.) “He eats, he sleeps, he voids his bowels,” says the Son in happy contemplation of his new little life. If nothing else, Nocturne is an impressively sustained exercise in solipsism.
Still, the script has more promise than this staging brings it. Fortier’s tremulous performance does suggest that the Son is slightly mad. But he’s ill-served by Keith Alan Baker’s direction, which allows him to deliver Rapp’s gushing word-streams in a legato phrasing that leaves behind most of the meaning. There’s little nuance and no ventriloquism, despite ample opportunities for different voices and mimicry. (When the Son feels as if he were “portaging a broken canoe through a Canadian ice storm,” Fortier just shuffles his feet a little.) You can hear what’s supposed to be funny—it’s just not conveying. The Son is obviously a difficult part, but it needs more energy and definition than Fortier gives it.
Maybe it’s because of the contrast, but the few-words turns of the rest of Studio’s cast are simply wonderful, resonant as Beckett amid all the blather. Rice is striking as the Father on the last day of his life—confused, slightly gasping for breath. When a thought rises out of the ocean of himself and you can see it surfacing, you can see the man he used to be. Andrea Hatfield beautifully renders the Mother, torn between agony at her daughter’s death and repressed rage at her son. Ewing as the Redheaded Girl With the Gray-Green Eyes makes the most out of mostly gazing at the Son; she gently nudges him toward life. And Brianna Gwen Parsonnet as the Sister is a gorgeous, moon-faced girl who plays both violin and cat’s cradle with arresting presence.
In the course of their last visit (15 years after the accident), the Father tells the Son how much he admired his novel, but that he puzzled over the part where the protagonist blamed himself for his sister’s death. That moment suggests a provocatively new way of looking at Nocturne—as a series of the Son’s hallucinations. (Peter N. Joyce’s lighting does create a golden, long-shadowed dream-space out of Giorgos Tsappas’ spartan set, and Edu. Bernardino’s Ward and June Cleaver costumes for the family are out of joint with both the script and the Son’s slacker garb.)
But it’s an opening the production doesn’t seem to exploit, perhaps because the playwright’s self-indulgence has closed down your attention long before. Taken singly, Rapp’s images can be ethereal (“air so humid it folds into the car like an invisible quilt,” for instance). Tumbling one after another for 150 minutes, they’re purgatory. As David Mamet recently said (quoting someone else) about playing piano chords, “Leave out the third—we hear it anyway.” In Nocturne, Rapp bangs out chords with all 10 fingers. To be a writer instead of a mere prodigy, he needs to leave a few off the keyboard. CP