By Adam Rapp
Directed by Marcus Stern
New York Theatre Workshop
70 East 4th Street / New York, NY 10003 / (212) 460-5475

Reviewed by David Spencer

On occasion, you can sniff out a dog from a synopsis of the story–and the notion that "Nocturne" was about the aftermath of an unintentional beheading was not altogether promising. The beheading in question is caused by our young hero, The Son, who calls himself Your Narrator, because he does (Dallas Roberts). A pianist, he tells us of the evening he was driving home, and upon turning into his street, found himself suddenly unable to apply the brakes. Mechanical failure, it would be determined, and not at all his fault, but the car runs over his little sister all the same, decapitating her in the process. In some ways, it would seem she was literally the head of the family too, for with her death, the glue holding those that remain together–Father (Will LeBow), Mother (Candice Brown) and Son–dissolves, and each descends into his/her own pit of devastating psychic despair.

Sounds horrible, right?

Well, guess what.

It’s wonderful.

Though Adam Rapp’s play at The New York Theatre Workshop is very much its own thing, one can for convenience’s sake say it belongs in the same category as Margaret Edson’s "Wit" as a surprisingly fresh, gratifyingly unsentimental and ultimately moving tale about the resilience of the human spirit and its capacity to survive and even heal in the face of mortality.

But there the similarities end. "Nocturne" does not unfold traditionally or with scenes acted in a familiar way. Your Narrator proceeds from one stark scenic tableau to the next–pausing in each for quite some time to tell us about what happened there. Other characters sometimes inhabit the tableau, and sometimes they speak–but they don’t truly interact: for the most part they are part of the scenic impressionism of our hero’s memory…the living, breathing part. (The final tableau, in which father and son connect after a long estrangement, is the only scene that breaks the pattern.)

What do I mean by stark tableaux? Think of a series of dioramas, cross sections, models. In the first scene, our hero, and the silent spectre of his sister (Nicole Pasquale) are in a red box. In a later scene, after our hero has left home, he is in a downtown New York City one-room utility flat, with the bathtub in the kitchen–viewed from above–the illusion is that he is looking up at us, ceilingward, from the tub in which he perches. When he goes to visit his father, years later, in a squalid Philadelphia apartment, it’s a literal box set, too small for him to stand up straight in. At times he must sit on the fourth wall edge and dangle his feet over it. The look of a play is always important, but the unique avant garde approach designer Christine Jones has devised for director Marcus Stern’s patiently paced, lyrical production, makes the set as much a character in the play as any other. In truth, in a way, it is the character, the visual realization of our hero’s anguished psyche.

Because most of the performances exist primarily as props to support Your Narrator’s odyssey, most can only be cited for their efficiency. But Will LeBow’s Father, as I say, does get true performance exposure, and it’s a lovely, heartbreaking cameo. As for the ingenuous Dallas Roberts’s turn as Our Guy in Crisis–it seems almost hyperbolic to call it a tour de force, as his energies are directed less at theatricality, per se (the production takes care of that) than simple, often subtle, clarity and stamina. But the command of craft and artistry it takes to do that, just that, in this environment, is remarkable.

I don’t know if "Nocturne" ultimately has the commercial "legs" that "Wit" had. It was instantly apparent that Ms. Edson’s play would move–but "Nocturne" is more of a challenge to an audience, stylistically and I think in its specific narrative. But wouldn’t it be cool to find that all of us Out There could rise to it…?


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