Mere minutes into “Nocturne,” a new play by Adam Rapp, it becomes clear that the author is an ambitious and prodigiously talented writer. But some 2-1/2 hours later, as the lights finally dim on this dense, dark and literary work, you may be still wondering whether he is a playwright.
Essentially a solo monologue delivered by a single character, “Nocturne” has been staged with crisp, chilly eloquence by Marcus Stern on sets by Christine Jones that have a clinical beauty recalling the work of Robert Wilson. The performance of Dallas Roberts in the primary role is remarkable both for its sheer scope and its understated intensity. But even a first-rate production can’t disguise the fact that “Nocturne” is essentially a massive slab of highly cultivated prose — excessively cultivated, in truth — that is bound to defy effective theatrical presentation.
Roberts plays a character identified only as the Son. Directly addressing the audience — he sometimes refers to himself as “your narrator” — he is telling us, at age 32, of a tragic accident that changed the course of his life. “Fifteen years ago I killed my sister” are the first words he speaks, with an arrestingly casual air. At age 17, breezing home from a fast-food job in Joliet, Ill., in his new Buick, he’d accidentally run over the 9-year-old when the car’s brakes failed.
He takes us through the events that led up to the tragedy and its shattering aftermath with a meticulousness that seems a determined but hardly reliable guard against emotion. Throughout the play, Roberts seems to be barely keeping a lid on a volcano of anguish by stacking big piles of words on top of it. The play is, among other things, about the connections between aesthetics and anesthetics, how the processing of experience through art can reconcile us to its pain — but at the price of feeling.
Eventually we learn that the narrator is a novelist, which in a sense justifies the verbosity of the text. But it’s worth noting that Rapp, too, is a novelist, and he allows a natural affinity for the rhythms and expansive possibilities of prose to undermine the theatrical appeal of his play.
Rapp will not settle for one image if he can think of two or six or 12. Similes proliferate like mushrooms after spring rain, you might say. Here’s a typical hunk of description: “The piano doesn’t sing. It sobs. It aches without release. Like a word that can’t wrench itself from the throat. Like an alkaline trapped in the liver. Even one note. A C-sharp. The death of a small bird. An F. A stranded car horn’s bleating for help on the highway. The piano has permanence. A factual permanence. You walk into a room and there it is in all of its stoic grandeur. It has omnipotence. It waits for you without pursuit. The hulking, coffin-like stillness. The way it comes to know your touch. Like a lover’s private indulgence. A kind of glacial intimacy. A cold, sexless knowing.”
Much of the writing is impressive in a carefully burnished way, but as fine and intermittently affecting as Roberts is in the central role, the play’s literary filigree keeps us at a distance from the events being described. It’s hard to be moved when you’re busy parsing piles of imagery. And eventually you may begin to resist — perhaps even resent — Rapp’s endless eloquence.
You may find yourself wondering, for instance, just how a young girl’s skull can gleam “with a kind of lunar sorrow,” or teeth can be “dim as a once-bitten apple.” Or, indeed, how the narrator, a self-proclaimed impotent virgin, could compare a sound to “a lover’s whisper pulling you under.” Poetic license, perhaps. But it’s a measure of the play’s ultimately wearying effect that by its conclusion I found myself wishing someone had revoked Mr. Rapp’s.