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Adam Rapp's gruesome, sad monologue makes an elegant song of grief

Wednesday, Oct 24 2001
"I wrote Nocturne as a monologue," said playwright Adam Rapp to the Boston Herald not long ago, "because I thought it would be harder to reject a play that only requires one actor." Well, it worked. The American Repertory Theater in Cambridge gave Nocturne a big premiere last year that turned the 32-year-old author of "young adult" novels (about kids in boarding school and juvenile hall) into a hot new playwriting commodity. Rapp and his brother Anthony -- who stars in the current show -- form a bloc of Gen-X artistic effort I would normally try to avoid, since Anthony originated a role in the Broadway generational extravaganza Rent and Nocturne follows a scruffy, youngish novelist who leads a poky life that sometimes feels overfamiliar. But what can I say? Nocturne's an elegant script.

The scruffy novelist killed his sister at the age of 17. It was an accident, but he has coped by turning emotionally cold. He recites his story in a halting voice that sounds written, like an encyclopedia. "Fifteen years ago I killed my sister," he says, robotically, over and over, after long digressions to define the word "killed" or to describe in writerly detail the family home in Joliet, Ill. Strangely enough -- because I don't think it's deliberate -- Anthony Rapp looks here like a young William T. Vollmann, with bowl-cut hair, nerdish glasses, and a flannel shirt. It's strange because Vollmann, a novelist, really does have his sister's death on his conscience: He failed to save her from drowning in a frozen pond.

The narrator's monotone feels tedious and overprecise, until the first wrenching death scene. There, the obsessive description of a girl in the street, a lurching Buick, and ruined brakes becomes a kind of slow-motion scene in a horror film. The details about his sister are devastating: He remembers her turned-down yellow socks, her pierced ears, and the fact that she would "mark her territory" -- pee -- "in all parts of the house." These details are all the more terrible because he recites them as items on a list rather than as warm, flowing, natural description, and Anthony Rapp makes this technique work onstage by fighting it, by making the novelist talk as if he would rather not feel so cold and dead.

He doesn't have a name. He's identified in the program as the Son, maybe because the story becomes a father-son tragedy. "Your father is taking it very hard," his mother says, just after the accident, and when the Son comes home from the hospital (after being injured inside the deadly Buick), there's a strange, vivid interlude involving the father and a handgun. The Son finds the gun aimed at him by a trembling, grieving man, and the minute description of family miseries and hatreds in this scene is almost beautiful. "His low-ceiling career. The mortgage payments." Bills and clutter on the father's desk. The litany of broken-down appliances and unfixed cars amounts to a neglectful, and finally ruined, life.

As a young boy the Son had been forced to play classical piano. He hates the instrument, but still thinks in musical terms: "A wooden bat hitting a ball is one of the sweetest notes of July. A D, I think." Behind his monologue we sometimes hear a sad, rolling piano, and his father tells him, very late in life, "You know, Nocturne was one of your best competition pieces." The novel he eventually writes -- about his sister's death -- is titled An Homage to Grieg, the composer of Nocturne. (It sells a pathetic 2,000 copies.)

Anthony Rapp narrates on a stark, largely bare stage, with piles of books and an oblong backdrop of brushed steel notched by a narrow window. (Neil Patel designed the set.) This represents, vaguely, the Son's messy bohemian apartment in New York. We learn that after the tragedy 15 years ago he escaped Illinois for Manhattan, where he found a bookstore job and a cheap flat owned by a Nabokov junkie. He bought an old Underwood and propped it up with used books. "The Tin Drum," he remembers, "House of Mirth, Rabbit, Run, A Frolic of His Own" (odd, since Frolic didn't exist 15 years ago; it came out in 1994). Lonely and penniless, he soon wrote his own novel, and met a pretty woman with blue-gray eyes that reminded him of "Hemingway's Caribbean Sea." This section of the show is clichéd: I mean, a bookstore job and an Underwood? Come on. But the botched relationship with the woman emphasizes the depth of his alienation, and the drone of Rapp's voice remains potent.

Nocturne is fiction, assembled from anecdotes Adam Rapp has heard, not experienced. The show might remind local audiences of a Word for Word project, since it feels so much like an unadapted short story. The Son speaks the way fictional narrators narrate, with economy and artificial eloquence. It's possible that Rapp initially wrote this monologue as a first-person story, not as a play that would be "hard to reject." Idle speculation. But Nocturne works because it finds room between neat composition and messy live performance to explore a cool, unspeakable ocean of grief.


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