Act I of The Metal Children ends with the abruptness of a horror movie, as author Tobin Falmouth (Billy Crudup) comes face-to-face with a pig-masked hoodlum and his vacuum cleaner. Act II picks up gradually throughout intermission, as actors assemble on stage, one by one, to participate in a hearing at Midlothia High School that will resolve the tense question of whether Falmouth's young-adult novel The Metal Children should be banned. Huge tonal shifts should surprise no-one familiar with Adam Rapp's work or his straightforward direction, but these moments hint at the larger problem Rapp faces: he's not exactly sure what he wants his play to be about. In fact, after much whinging, drinking, and other disheveled debauchery, Falmouth himself confesses that he doesn't know what his book's about: he just felt driven to write it, as a means of coping with the abortion his wife-at-the-time underwent. The Metal Children lacks that emotional drive; instead, Rapp settles for speeches and atmosphere, bluffing his way to a seriousness that's belied by the inevitable comparison (on account of Crudup) to the far-superior The Pillowman.
As in Kindness, Rapp dances around the drama; he's comic enough that, in the moment, you don't mind, but the spell breaks at the end of each scene. Some don't work at all, like the opener between Falmouth and his agent, Bruno (David Greenspan, wasted here in an unfunny role that asks him to play David Greenspan), which is filled with unnecessary exposition and exists only to justify the play's bookending conclusion (in which a moral is tantalizingly lunged at). Once the action shifts to Midlothia, Rapp spends too much time introducing characters like Edith (Susan Blommaert), the hotel owner, or Stacey Kinsella (Connor Barrett), a local teacher who ardently defends the importance of Falmouth's novel; he mistakes color for character, and plot for action, and through it all, Crudup can do little more than gape, bass-mouthed, at the inanity of what he's walked into. It's not until Edith's niece, Vera (Phoebe Strole), breaks in that the play perks up--she's a sexy young seductress with a mind full of fresh and well-rehearsed ideas, and she forces Falmouth to take action.
But after that, the play cuts right back to proselytizing: there's a well-acted debate scene, featuring religiously fervent (occasionally incomprehensibly so) young girls like Tami Lake (Halley Wegryn Gross) and elderly witch-hunters like Roberta Cupp (Betsy Aidem), and a jovially biased moderator, Otto Hurley (Guy Boyd). These characters, like the ones Falmouth describe, have a need to speak, but they don't have a need to be in this play -- at least, not as The Metal Children is structured. And surely enough, the play soon ducks into Lynchian territory: a scene from Falmouth's novel is creepily recreated, but not even remotely explained or addressed. It just is, much like the otherwise fine ideas--particularly about the divide between Heartland values and literary rights and between censorship and protection.
The conclusion of The Metal Children helps to qualify much of what's preceded it. Falmouth's finally written a new novel: he's managed to isolate certain parts of his Midlothian experience and use it to tell a comprehensive story, to put his life together. Here, with the focus firmly on the author, the play is most able to serve as a mirror, with the man facing the consequences of his past. But this seems more like a starting point for a play than an ending point, and the quality of moments like this exposes the leaden underbelly of the even the most seemingly statuesque scenes that precede it.