Nocturne

A family tragedy becomes an endurance test for the audience.

C.T. Doescher flails against a powerful undertow in Adam Rapp's Nocturne. No sooner do the lights come up than the narrator of this monologue confesses he accidentally killed his younger sibling when he was a teenager. What follows next is one long recitation of loss, blame, and sorrow, and it never gets any more uplifting than to divulge that our protagonist is now an impotent and impoverished resident of New York City.Playwrights can make scripts such as this work in several ways: They can be kept short and tight, which allows the emotional impact to linger because it's delivered in a quick succession of blows to the solar plexus. Or—and this can make or break a solo performance—a few moments of levity can be added to provide relief from the stultifying gloom. Rapp chooses neither of these with Nocturne, instead driving his singular point home endlessly until the viewers' empathies are numbed from overuse.We understand that this family is deeply shaken by an unexpected death, and that this one random tragedy seeps through the survivors like radiation poisoning. Got it. Got it, in fact, sometime during the first 40 minutes. Then it's roughly another hour and 15 (not including intermission) before the audience is set free. Since the sole performer is often less than 10 feet away and the only way out is the door to his immediate right, Nocturne quickly degenerates from a stage play into an endurance cage match.Some would say that a great actor could take this dirge and make it sing. Unlikely, and Doescher and director Jerry Manning certainly don't make that case here. This production is rife with unexplored possibilities. For example, Nocturne requires its soloist to either inhabit or quote all of the play's characters as they come and go, meaning that each separate personality affords the actor moments to bring the other characters to life. Here, those chances are largely left untaken, and the best Doescher can muster is a change of cadence in his speech to represent them.Nocturne is staged in a rectangular room with risers at one end for the audience and a string of light bulbs dangling from the ceiling opposite. This recital-like minimalism carries over to the set design, which consists of a few stacks of books and four chairs meant to indicate the absent family members. Apparently designer L.B. Morse picked pieces that would suffice on a tiny budget rather than beg, borrow, or improvise something that could have provided insight or a complement to Rapp's text. The show doesn't suffer from a lack of production budget. It suffers from a lack of imagination.In the last analysis, anyone who's ever done time in a dorm with a roommate who can't wait to disgorge every unpleasantry that life has thrust upon him will respect the verisimilitude of Nocturne. But is this really the stuff of theater? An old Monty Python routine springs to mind. "Ladies and gentlemen," one of the troupe would begin, "I've suffered for my art. Now it's your turn."

 
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