A Good Case for Staying Home

7. September, 2012 Theater 1 comment

The big selling point of San Jose Rep’s season opener, The Death of the Novel, is not that it’s a world premiere. The draw also isn’t that it’s a new play by Jonathan Marc Feldman, the screenwriter of Swing Kids, the unintentionally hilarious movie melodrama about the oppressed swing subculture of Nazi Germany (best summed up by the teary little boy yelling “Swing heil!” as his brother is carted off by the Gestapo for doing the Lindy Hop). No, the big deal about this play is that it stars Vincent Kartheiser, best known for playing the weaselly little shit Pete Campbell on Mad Men (and the entirely different weaselly little shit Connor on Angel before that).

Amy Pietz and Vincent Kartheiser in The Death of the Novel. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Kartheiser’s character in The Death of the Novel is also a complete shit, but he’s only weaselly part of the time. His default mode is arrogant, sarcastic condescension. Sebastian Justice (seriously, that’s his name) is a guy who wrote one supposedly brilliant bestselling novel and is now petrified of writing another word or ever leaving his apartment. Literally unwilling to set foot outside his apartment for two years now, he spends his days watching TV, playing video games, having sex with a call girl, and stalking people online, although we never actually see a computer in his home.  Of course, he would never say that he’s afraid. He just says fiction, especially serious literary fiction, is a waste of time—not just to write but even to read.

When Sebastian was a teenager, he was an eyewitness to the fall of the World Trade Center from his bedroom window, and his novel The Seventh Day was inspired by that. “I just figured out what was the book everyone wanted to see from a boy who saw the towers fall, and I wrote it,” he now says dismissively. When someone tells him that no one could fake his way through such beautiful and profound writing, he says of course they could. I think the excerpts from the book that we hear read aloud are supposed to convince us of the tortured, sensitive genius under his carapace of cynicism, but they really don’t. If anything, they lend credence to Sebastian’s own assessment.

Sebastian has been given a sizeable advance for the second novel he has no interest in writing, so he’s been assigned a therapist to demonstrate that he’s seeking help, or else he has to give the advance back. At first the therapist, Dr. Perry Cray, seems a bit thick-headed, asking only the most basic, rote questions as if filling out a form, which makes it hard to believe that she’s the formidable “writer’s block whisperer” she’s made out to be. But that’s just her way of plowing through Sebastian’s constant barrage of bullshit.

When we first see them, Sebastian is chattering nonstop about why its stupid to worry about global warming with the smirk and sarcastic tone of someone who doesn’t take anything he says seriously but is tremendously pleased with himself for saying it. The fact that Kartheiser plows through Sebastian’s maddeningly self-indulgent monologues with the recitative of someone who’s always performing instead of talking just makes his character more impossible to feel anything for.

Of course, because he’s such a complete dick, all women love him. Even the call girl he hires, an aspiring writer named Claire, wants to date him for free. Played with slinky sensuality by Zarah Mahler in sleek dresses by Denitsa Bliznakova, Claire is actually the most likeable character in the play, which is funny considering how little she has to work with. She’s your basic hooker with a heart of gold, only more literary.

Only Dr. Cray doesn’t fall for Sebastian’s nonsense—at least not much—but she still somehow cares enough about him that she feels like she has to look after him even after he’s no longer her patient. Although she seems at sea at first, unable to get a word in edgewise, Amy Pietz does lend the therapist a bit of gravity; like the audience, she finds this guy’s blather more tedious than charming.

The problem is that the other woman in the play—the main woman—is his friend’s girlfriend. Sebastian is quick to say that Philip isn’t his best friend, but everyone knows he’s his only friend. Played with hearty, jovial zest by Patrick Kelly Jones, Philip is a human rights researcher who’s always off in top-of-the-mind topical places like Afghanistan and Iraq, accessorizing with a Palestinian keffiyeh.

Philip is a man of gushing enthusiasms, and he comes in telling Sebastian about this amazing woman he met at the Korean market. Her name is Sheba (again, seriously), and she’s the most fascinating, sexy, free-spirited woman from Saudi Arabia. The problem is, we already know that Sheba’s obsessed with Sebastian, because the play opened with an effusive fan letter from her, delivered in a rhapsodic monologue. “Sebastian Justice, how do you know these secrets about me?” she says. “Your gift to me is that I can feel again, and suddenly I know who I am.” Sebastian, on the other hand, probably doesn’t know this, because he says he burns his fan mail unread.

Vaishnavi Sharma does have a lot of personal magnetism as Sheba, urbane, flirty, and terribly enthusiastic, gushing about how amazing New York is and how Harvard changed her life. She talks with a plummy English accent and makes a big deal about how thoroughly Westernized and liberated she is, not at all the way people live back in her native Saudi Arabia. “I eat everything, except mediocre blueberries,” she says.

Sebastian, of course, keeps making casually racist remarks at her from the moment she walks in the door. He probably doesn’t hate Arabs at all, but decides it would be impishly provocative to behave as if he does. Or something. Really, the guy’s just a dick. So it’s not really surprising at all that he starts propositioning her the minute that Philip goes to the corner for more wine. Nor is it remotely shocking, because it’s obvious that Sheba’s somehow using Philip as a pretext to get to Sebastian, much as she pretends otherwise. She plays hard to get in that playful way that lets him know she’s nothing of the kind.

Sebastian sees her as “some exotic trophy” and says so in so many words. He’s convinced that her persona is entirely manufactured and she’s not at all who she claims to be, but that makes her all the more interesting to him. She’s a living, breathing work of fiction that he can believe in. And, perhaps more to the point, that he can fuck. But who is she really? Is she some stalker or something? Is her increasingly colorful back story true, or is she making it up? How long can they shut out the world and live on illusion?

Artistic director Rick Lombardo gives the play a lively staging that highlights the excesses of the script rather than smoothing them over. Lighting designer David Lee Cuthbert captures five weeks of nonstop frolicking with a strobe effect, lest we forget that under the giant party hats and jumping down on the bed are two severely damaged people running away from their problems. Sound designer Haddon Givens Kime accompanies a psychotic break with one of those jumble-of-keys piano compositions that might be used for a moment like that in a Warner Bros. cartoon.

John Iacovelli’s set depicts one of those palatial Manhattan apartments that you always see artists inhabiting in movies and plays but that no one who’s not a multimillionaire could ever afford in real life. It’s also strikingly Spartan, not looking lived-in at all, much less like a place that someone never leaves. But the design has hidden depths; a smooth and unexpected set change in the second act is easily the most impressive moment in the show.

Over and over again in the last few scenes of the play, I found myself thinking, “Seriously? This? You’re really doing this?” All the most hackneyed twists of melodrama get dusted off and trotted out, and the less faith you have in Feldman as a writer, the easier the ending is to predict. The only reason it doesn’t seem inevitable is that surely no one would have thought something quite that facile was presentable.

Kartheiser’s artificiality aside, the actors do a good job of bringing their characters to life, but when Jones’s likeable Philip tells a tale of typical tragedy in the Middle East, it just drives home that there’s just no way of making this speech sound lifelike. And when it comes to a question of what will become of our antihero, it’s extremely hard to give a shit, and harder still to wish him well.

In the end, The Death of the Novel does one thing well. The play actually makes a compelling case for fiction being a complete waste of time. This particular fiction, anyway.

The Death of the Novel
Through September 22
San Jose Repertory Theatre
101 Paseo de San Antonio
San Jose, CA

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  1. 9 / 8 / 2012 1:29 pm

    Awww…Ouch! I was excited to see this: it felt like there were overtones of David Foster Wallace. But from your review it’s more like a mash-up of DFW, Jonathan Franzen & Brett Easton Ellis.





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