The Metal Children
Look out Aaron Sorkin, Adam Rapp is fast becoming one of my favorite modern writers. The Metal Children is Rapp’s latest fully produced work and is currently playing at The Vineyard Theatre. And it’s superb.
In The Metal Children, we follow author Tobin Falmouth (Billy Crudup) as he defends his young adult novel, The Metal Children, against a school board in a “small community in the American heartland,” which has banned the book after deeming it inappropriate for the children. (His name is Falmouth - get it?) We first meet Toby in his West Village apartment, which scenic designer David Korins made perfectly cramped and dressed with such detail, right down to the books scattered about Toby’s floor and the bong sitting high atop a shelf. It is here that his agent informs him of an upcoming school board meeting in the small community, to which the English teacher, Stacey Kinsella, has invited Toby. Toby travels to the community and finds that not everyone is as welcoming as Kinsella. He also finds that some of the teenagers have taken to copying and recreating the events in the book, much to his dismay and disbelief. This is all loosely based on Rapp’s own experience: He, too, wrote a controversial young adult novel that was banned by school boards. (Read Rapp’s first person account of what happened with his novel, The Buffalo Tree, and how it inspired The Metal Children.) This set up allows Rapp, and the audience, to explore the meaning of art, if any, and the artist’s responsibility, if any, to society.
During the school board meeting, Vera, a 16 year old, fervent Tobin Falmouth champion, defends the novel by saying that an artist’s job is to hold a mirror up to society. She argues that the “town elders” who’ve banned the book didn’t read deep enough into it to glean its true meaning - what it says about society. (This artist-as-mirror is an argument I’ve made before, particularly when praising American Idiot.) Toby, though grateful for Vera’s support, responds by telling a rather sad and touching story about how the novel was written. He wraps it up by saying he didn’t mean all the things Vera and others are inferring from the novel; he didn’t write it as a comment on anything - he wrote because he had to. I found this to be an incredibly poignant moment in the show.
On the one hand, Toby is saying there’s no hidden meaning in his book. I often argued with my English teachers in high school when we were discussing symbolism in whatever we happened to be reading. Being a bit contentious, I would ask, “Really? Did Joseph Conrad really think, ‘Oh, Kurtz is going to mean this or that‘ when writing Heart of Darkness, or was he just writing?” And despite the damning evidence, did L. Frank Baum write The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as an allegory and is the cowardly lion actually William Jennings Bryan, or is this just a fantasy novel? Who knows, but what Toby quickly learns is that, on the other hand, he can intend to write one thing, but once the art is out there, it is entirely open to interpretation and that’s the risk the artist takes. I saw an example of this a while back. I was at a Gavin Creel concert (in addition to being a great actor, he’s also a recording artist and is currently working on his second album.) He was introducing his song “These Four Walls” and said that the song is about how these two lovers “need these four walls to survive” - they can’t take their love out in public and so it’s actually a very sad love song. He mentioned this because, as he told us, several friends said that they wanted to use that as their wedding song and Gavin would always respond in shock, saying, “Do you know what the song is about?!?” At that moment, I thought, “Gavin, that’s the thing about art. You create it and it can mean one thing to you but the brave thing the artist does is put it out there, leaving it open to interpretation.” Once the artist shares his art, he can’t control the reaction to it - and this is a lesson that Tobin Falmouth learns throughout the course of The Metal Children, that his words do, indeed, have meaning.
Rapp explores this motif in beautiful, natural dialogue. He also directs the piece with a thoughtful and expert touch. In the last few years, Rapp has taken to directing his own work and the results have been fantastic. My favorite directing choice in The Metal Children was the way act two, scene one played out. This was the school board meeting scene. During intermission, a red curtain closed on stage; an American flag was set downstage right; a podium was placed beside it and beside the podium were several metal folding chairs. One by one - and unobtrusively, I might add - the actors came out and took their seats. It was clear we were in an auditorium and the meeting was about to begin. But the best part was that the action began and the houselights stayed on: We were attending the school board meeting; we were making the choice about whether or not this book was appropriate. This directing choice really drove home the point that we are a community and we must decide what value art has in our lives.
In addition to the great writing and directing, the performances were all very strong - not a weak member among the group. Connor Barrett, a big solid tree of a man, was terrific as the English teacher Stacey Kinsella, a jittery little ball of nerves. Phoebe Strole, who was very affecting in Spring Awakening, was pitch perfect here as Vera, an assured believer; a young woman who truly felt passionate about her beliefs and about sharing them with society. And Billy Crudup (a Tony winning stage vet who you know from movies like one of my faves, Almost Famous) was brilliant as Tobin. There is a moment at the end of act one where Tobin has to make a decision and to watch the struggle going on in his face and behind his eyes is to watch a master at work.
Adam Rapp is a strong, important and honest voice in American theatre and literature. If you’re in the area, I urge you to run to see this production. And if not, The Metal Children is available for purchase so you can read it and pore over this extraordinary new play.
- Visit the Vineyard Theatre’s website for more information about The Metal Children
- Check out production stills and opening night photos, both from Broadway.com
- Read a Time Out NY article about Billy Crudup and his relationship with Adam Rapp
- Visit NYTimes.com for their review of the play (which I don’t wholly agree with), a profile on Adam Rapp and a discussion of the artwork for both the production poster and the published play cover
- Read The Buffalo Tree, Adam Rapp’s young adult novel that inspired controversy and, ultimately, The Metal Children