Adam Rappís plays, he says, are spurred by titles, the latest, Stone Cold Dead Serious, taking its moniker from the sales pitch of a QVC baseball-card hawker whose mantra was, " If you donít buy this card, youíre making the biggest mistake of your life. I am stone-cold dead serious. " Over and over he said it, the absurdly skewed valuation in the statement feeding into Rappís scabrous, poignant vision of suburban-American innocence lost.
Actually, this newest work of American Repertory Theatre wunderkind Rapp seems more inspired by J.D. Salingerís Franny and Zooey, a dog-eared copy of which makes its way into the final scene, than by shopping-network pitchmen. But for its first act, at least, Stone Cold paints a black-comic portrait of the Heartland gone rotten and the family turned bereft whose coarse poesy rivals that of Sam Shepardís Pulitzer-winning Buried Child. Rapp pushes the limits of grotesquerie here, hammering the vulgarity of the clan so hard that itís difficult to identify with its stunted struggle back to an insular Eden in which the four were " happy and not just not sad. " But the actís raw, painful final image is as mysterious and powerful as any in Shepardís iconography.
After intermission, the play suffers from an offstage climax reported on an upstage-facing television, and toward the end it goes soft and fuzzy in more ways than one. But ART honcho Robert Brustein, who is producing his third world premiere of a Rapp play in 16 months, is right to be stone-cold-dead-seriously promoting this major, if too hastily thrust forth, talent. And Marcus Stern, who built a surreal dreamscape on Rappís linguistically haunting Nocturne, here turns out a funny but piercing production of a perverse, sentimental, imperfect, yet affecting new work.
At its center are the Ledbetters, who reside in a tacky, cluttered box outside Chicago. Window glazier Cliff, disabled by a back injury and trashed on painkillers, sits beached on the couch all day, crapping his pants, buying things he canít afford from the shopping networks, and doing a rather astonishing live impersonation of Homer Simpson. Wife Linda, a waitress working double shifts, prattles about the saints, available in living-color portraiture, and wonders vaguely why the family has ceased going to church. The Franny and Zooey figures are Shaylee, a gifted runner who has dropped out of high school to become a " worthless drug-addict slut, " and Wynne, a dutiful if fuming 16-year-old who is one of three people in the country to have solved a computer video game called Tang Dynasty.
As the play opens, Wynne is poised for a trip to " an undisclosed location in New Yorkís East Village " to compete in a live-action-role-playing version of the game for a prize of one million dollars, with which he hopes to solve the problems of his dysfunctional clan. The catch is that, unlike actual live-action versions of virtual battle games, in which the mortal peril is simulated, Wynne is to fight for his life against trained samurai swordsmen wielding wakizashis. To this end, he has been training to turn his geeky, slump-shouldered self into " a fierce and brutal weapon of death. " He has also become romantically involved, online, with another finalist, a karate-chopping mute called Sharice.
As in Nocturne, Rapp uses language in striking ways, mixing casual, oft-hilarious crudeness and pop-cultural reference with blunt, lyrical evocations of loneliness. The forlornly malaproping Cliff thinks of himself as " meat that moves ó like ham. " And Rapp creates a sweet, quirky collection of family touchstones: one Ledbetter or another will say, " Ha, " to which the automatic comeback is " Youíre the ha. "
There is much in this play, though, that remains murky or unearned. As in Franny and Zooey, there is a spiritual as well as a familial breakdown at issue; mom reaches out to her kitschy saints, Wynne to a samurai code of honor that includes freeing the soul through hara-kiri. Shaylee spurns a " dickhead " God who never shows up; yet in a final scene that finds her and Wynne bundling babes in a nuthouse, she grasps at divine images ranging from Smokey the Bear to Salingerís Fat Lady. However, with Wynne tied down, heartbroken, and death-seeking, the play seems headed for a tough place that it then jumps away from in favor of a stark but shmaltzy finale.
Abetted by set designer Christine Jones, Stern does a deft job of floating Rappís on-the-surface-realistic scenes in a series of wide, increasingly barren spaces (though the protracted set changes are not adequately filled by a sound design that mixes music and noise with flashback conversation). And the central performances, by a quartet of New York actors, are very finely tuned. Matthew Stadelmann exudes gambling, childlike intensity and nervous despair as the bespectacled, blue-haired Wynne, and Elizabeth Reaser, as Shaylee, moves affectingly from substance-gorging sexpot to shuffling spiritual seeker. (Having her double as Sharice, though, sets up the question whether the girlfriend is less a real character than an incestuous projection of Shaylee.) As Linda, Deirdre OíConnell mixes tough love with an expert Midwestern twang, and Guy Boydís sloppy, lost-soul Cliff, cradling a dirty bathrobe as if it were an uncorrupted babe he canít have back, is heartbreaking. Rapp needs to get stone-cold dead serious about a rewrite, because thereís a potent play here, waiting to be sharpened like a pencil.