The most interesting thing about “The Metal Children” is its backstory. Adam Rapp, whose plays mainly deal with masculine identity issues, also writes young adult novels, including one banned from a school in Reading, PA, because of its “themes, graphic language, and sexual content.” The play gets real by sending an author (played by Billy Crudup) into a small town in middle America and presenting him with balanced arguments on a writer’s moral responsibility for his work. But the debate is trivialized by the play’s surreal structure and absurdist comic tropes — and muted by the spineless author’s failure to take a position.
Crudup pretty much saves the day with his nuanced perf as Tobin Falmouth (or “Foul Mouth,” as his detractors would have it), an extraordinarily unlikable character who commits an unspeakably irresponsible act in the course of the play.
A typical Rapp loser, Falmouth was a successful author of young adult fiction until his creative juices dried up and his wife, another writer, left him for her editor. Now he slouches around his squalid apartment in the West Village with a chagrined look on his unshaven face as his drum-beating agent (a clever turn by David Greenspan) tries to prod him back to productive life.
A letter from the head of the English Department at Midlothia Memorial High School, located in some nowhere burg “in the American heartland,” finally does the trick. Falmouth’s seminal novel, “The Metal Children,” has been struck off the curriculum by the local school board and a special public meeting has been called to deal with the furious controversy that action has stirred up.
Could he possibly attend? Well, yes, he could, and once he’s settled into his cheerless motel room, Falmouth is astonished to learn that Midlothia is caught up in an ideological civil war that has already turned quite nasty, what with murder, suicide, and what-have-you.
Using the bizarre plot of the book as a blueprint, his fiercest girl supporters have been deliberately getting pregnant and are planning to start a commune in Idaho. His fiercest boy detractors have been running around in pig masks, defacing property and threatening worse. And in the midst of the furor, 16-year-old Vera Dundee (the very, very serious Phoebe Strole) hops into his bed and asks him to make her pregnant.
Rapp, who has a thing about directing his own work, does not have the right kind of chops to translate the play’s absurdist events into surreal theatricality. The actors are all willing, but the manic insanity just doesn’t reach them.
It’s Rapp the dramatist who really stalls out in the second act, in which the town’s ideological adversaries present their arguments at the school board meeting. For all the extremist examples they cite from this weird book, their earnest briefs for and against censorship are extremely logical and cogently presented.
But having slept with Vera, Falmouth is in no position to take a moral stand. Stuck in what was a reactive part to begin with, Crudup is now forced to sit still, look at his feet, and hold his tongue. This is an actor with an uncommonly expressive face and great inner resources, so he manages to make something interesting, even touching, of Falmouth’s rambling non-response at the conclusion of this crucial scene.
But if the panelists are too polite to hit Falmouth over the head and yell “Fraud,” surely some of them must be thinking it.