Adam Rapp’s interest in the young and the alienated stretches back to the beginning of the young writer’s burgeoning career. His latest effort continues his signature blend of dreamy romanticism and slice-o-life existentialism, and features more of his self-destructive characters.
But despite a lack of focus and some narrative insecurity, “Gompers” is a significant departure for Rapp. It substitutes an expansive urban canvas for his typical diet of a couple of losers holed up in one room.
This episodic play — quite reasonably billed as City Theater’s most ambitious work to date — still needs a lot of work and considerable reordering. And what with alienated teens a-plenty, a mother-daughter sexual rivalry, various beatings and attempted suicides and a sweet, dying, HIV-positive man straight from “Rent” (and played by Anthony Rapp with characteristic charisma), it’s not particularly subtle or streamlined.
But “Gompers” is Rapp’s most emotional and powerful work to date, and its beautifully forged characters pack a significant emotional punch and live with the viewer well after the final curtain.
In its best moments — and there are many in Tracey Brigden’s capably directed production — it evokes such past panoplies of the downtrodden as “The Hot L Baltimore” and “The Time of Your Life.,”
Play’s great strength is its deft evocation of a 1990s phenomenon: the dead ex-urban town in which all the union jobs have been downsized or outsourced, leaving a blue-collar population struggling to survive and losing themselves and their children in a variety of sad, desperate schemes involving sex, gambling, drugs and crime.
While it avoids direct politics, “Gompers” effectively points out the spiritual cost of substituting gigs fixing slot machines on gambling boats for more fulfilling work.
The play follows a variety of characters inhabiting the same apartment building — the building manager with an interest in dog racing, a single mother, a sad-sack hanger-on. The best-realized characters are its young people — a desperately sad, pregnant teen named Molly (beautifully played by Molly Simpson) and her uncertain African-American boyfriend Stromile (Demond Robertson). Their scenes are achingly lovely — leaving us wanting far more of them.
There are cliches here, too: an old general wanting to kill himself while wearing his dress uniform, a local cop who sounds like a spokesman for the local chamber of commerce. Such less-than-credible characters could be excised in favor of more time with the kids.
But “Gompers” is already a work with palpable heart and authenticity. Rapp has stretched himself in many ways here — and it seems to have paid off.