“Write what you know” is the most common advice given to would-be authors, and Adam Rapp has drawn on his own experience with a vengeance in what may be his best play yet, The Metal Children. In 2005 a school in Pennsylvania banned Rapp’s young adult novel The Buffalo Tree, and he has transformed that incident into a dense, rich meditation on what it means to be a writer and what moral responsibilities that may carry, along with a host of other questions that ripple out from his plot. He is abetted by a superb cast, anchored by a magnificent performance from Billy Crudup. As the writer under attack, the matinee idol has managed to deglamorize himself (with the help of costumer Jessica Pabst and some subtle makeup by Erin Kennedy Lunsford) for a part that he clearly has dug into deeply. Pasty and disheveled, Crudup’s Tobin Falmouth is reeling from his wife’s abandonment of their marriage for a younger writer. Tobin is nine months late delivering his latest novel, and his editor, Bruno (David Greenspan), hopes to shake him out of his moping inertia by having him personally engage a school board in a middle American town, Midlothia, that has banned his successful young adult novel, The Metal Children. Moreover, teenage girls are going missing and their images being replaced by metal statues, as in the book (a bizarre twist that’s left unexplained).
When Tobin arrives in Midlothia, he is immediately caught up in the repercussions of the school board battle. Supporting him are Stacy Kinsella (Connor Barrett), an English teacher; Edith Dundee (Susan Blommaert), the motel proprietress; and most important, Edith’s niece Vera (Phoebe Strole), a ringleader of a group of young women in town who have modeled their actions on the novel’s heroine, Meredith Miller. Tobin barely remembers the incidents from his early work, only gradually comprehending that the book, written years before, has affected the townspeople beyond what he could have imagined.
After discovering that vandals have broken into his motel room and spray-painted the words “Gone for now” on the walls, it’s Vera who reminds Tobin that the words come from his book, and that Meredith painted herself gold and bleached her hair blond, as the determined Vera and her clique have. And someone is telephoning Tobin and running a vacuum cleaner when he answers—another dire reference to the book.
But Rapp has a sense of the absurdity as well as the vehemence of the culture clashes. A masked faction called the Pork Patrol has been terrorizing the book’s advocates; one of their methods of intimidation is to throw pork products, like head cheese, at the doors of supporters. “What do you think it means?” Edith asks Stacey. “I assume it represents the same thing it did in Mr. Falmouth’s novel: the inviolable fetus,” he says. “Sounds good to me,” says the clueless Tobin.
At every step someone reminds Tobin of elements in his nearly forgotten work, and it’s a credit to Rapp as director that he never lets one’s interest flag, even during several passages of reading in the play. The most impressive is Tobin’s own speech at the school board meeting, in which he ramblingly tries to describe why he wrote the novel—but succeeds only in demonstrating a messy life and confused state of mind. The shy Tobin scarcely looks at the audience at first, yet as he gradually unloads his emotional baggage, the actor transmits Tobin’s unhappiness, bewilderment and psychological pain.
Nowhere does Rapp settle for easy point-counterpoint arguments. Tobin is a deeply flawed protagonist with no moral compass. In addition to his drug-taking and self-pity, he allows himself to be seduced by the 16-year-old Vera. And he lashes out at the people who oppose his book, particularly Roberta Cupp, played with heartfelt concern and confident decency by Betsy Aidem.
“One of our jobs as community leaders is to facilitate opportunities for our young people to connect with the world in positive ways, to help mentor them toward making sound moral choices as they approach adulthood,” Roberta says in her speech, and it’s hard to argue with her “It takes a village” attitude. The notion of Tobin as a mentor is appalling. But all the characters are layered: even First Amendment firebrands may find themselves sympathizing with Cupp or Otto Hurley, the school board bigwig invested with authority and a sense of fairness by Guy Boyd.
When Tobin finally realizes the way his work has affected other people, he becomes a more sober, discreet, and perhaps better human being, and Rapp suggests that the freedom to write carries some kind of obligation, some awareness of the dangers inherent in the work—though not responsibility for interpretations. That’s a powerful, daring message in this complex examination of the culture wars.