By Adam Rapp
Directed by Joanie Shultz
At Next Theatre
Playwright turns the banning of one of his own books into thoughtful play about censorship
Adam Rapp’s The Metal Children is a sprawling piece, dealing with many satellite topics; but at its heart – what sets everything in motion – is censorship. Tobin Falmouth (portrayed very well by Sean Cooper) is a struggling author who lives in New York; he is barely making rent, has a serious case of writer’s block, and his wife just left him for her editor. On top of that, a small, Midwestern town has recently decided to ban his second book, a young adult novel he wrote years ago called The Metal Children. The book is about high school girls in Iowa getting pregnant and disappearing, being replaced by metal statues; the heroine eventually commits suicide in a grisly way. The town of Midlothia (not to be confused with the Midlothians in Texas – just drove through there last weekend – or Illinois) has decided that the content is unsuitable for their students, and forcibly removed the copies, sometimes from students’ hands.
The local school board is having a meeting to determine whether the banning was kosher, so to speak, and Tobin’s editor, Bruno Binelli (the wonderful Marc Grapey), convinces him to go: there is a strong contingent, led by an English teacher, fighting back against the banning, and they want Tobin to come to the defense of his book. The people he meets in the small town make a lasting impression on the author.
The play deals with many topics: censorship, teenage pregnancy, abortion, homosexuality, divorce, violence, religion, fundamentalism, the place of art in society . . . . And yet, with this long laundry list of issues, the piece never gets bogged down by any of it. Sprawling, yes; dissipated, no. And the show takes its time with these issues, shows how they interrelate, cares for each one of them, none of them tokenized or crowding out another.
And the characters are fleshed out, as well. None of them lack humanity: each is human in his or her humility, pride, cleverness, compassion, cruelty. No one feels like a synecdoche, someone whose presence only represents a type or a group. Although Vera (played admirably by Caroline Neff, in her Next Theatre debut) does seem wise beyond her years: she is an exceptionally precocious 16. At the same time, even though she has complex ideas and uses powerful language, her “movement” is ultimately something of a failure – as if the author is saying, she’s not all that clever after all. She is idealistic, but her idealism is flawed, which gives a character that may have fallen into facility real depth. Tobin also delivers a powerful monologue in the second act of the play that reminded me, for some reason, of the monologue about Iraqi kites in The Distance from Here: I think because, in the middle of all this grime, this grit and hellishness going on – with nothing but dialogue – there suddenly appears a moment of stillness and beauty . . . and pain, and white-hot truth. It’s a powerful moment, in a play that has no lack of them.
And the company keeps up with the material effortlessly. Laura T. Fischer, Meg Thalken, Bradley Mott, Paul Fagen – and the rest; everyone brings their best to the table. This is a very strong production of a very strong new play.
Reviewed on 4.17.11
For full show information, visit The Metal Children page at Theatre in Chicago.
At the Next Theatre, 927 Noyes, Evanston, IL; call 847-475-1875 x2 or visit www.nexttheatre.org; tickets $25-$40; performances Thursdays at 7:30, Fridays and Saturdays at 8p.m., and Sundays at 2p.m.; running time 2 ½ hours, with one intermission; through May 8th.