A teen boy watches from his window as the Twin Towers fall on Sept. 11, 2001, and the whole world plunges into despair. Chaos and fear engulf him until sanity slips out from under him in "The Death of the Novel."
Jonathan Marc Feldman's heady but flawed new drama meditates on a complicated tangle of intriguing themes, including romance as a delusion, grief as a kind of madness and nihilism as a reasonable response to a planet on the brink of environmental collapse.
The central character, celebrated novelist Sebastian, is a young man drunk on words, once intoxicated by stringing together magical combinations of phrases but now so stung by life that he can't go outside. Ever.
Famous, rich and 26, he broods amid the gilded cage of his Manhattan apartment, an oasis of exposed brick, high ceilings and stainless steel (designed by John Iacovelli). He's waiting to die or have his advance run out, whichever comes first.
Unfortunately, the playwright has not yet found a way to palpably connect these scintillating motifs with a plot and characters that seem grounded in the believable. Despite a high-octane performance by Vincent Kartheiser as the gleeful hermit, "The Death of the Novel" never quite sucks us into its vortex of sex, lies and Facebook posts in its world premiere at San Jose Rep.
It's hard to care about Sebastian's dalliance with the life of the mind because he's more provocateur than poet. He's a misanthrope with a love of
Kartheiser, best known as the unctuous Pete on AMC's hit "Mad Men," burrows deeply into Sebastian's tormented psyche, from his agoraphobia to his fury, both of which are boundless. The actor gives Sebastian an edge of volatility that fleshes out the character's rapacious narcissism. He seems to revel in the antihero's volleys of snide banter and acerbic wit, which add some crackle to the draggy first act.
Most of Sebastian's combative interactions with the outside world are limited to people whose services he pays for, including a shrink (Amy Pietz) who tries to find the reason for his writer's block. She thinks that he was so overpraised for his debut novel that he can't risk revealing his inadequacy through a second book. So he pays for human contact, bemoans anything that smacks of sincerity and belittles everyone who darkens his door.
The ranting falls silents when Sheba (an appealing turn by Vaishnavi Sharma) sashays into his life. A mysterious Middle Eastern beauty with high heels (diva-licious costumes by Denitsa Bliznakova) and low expectations, Sheba is instantly besotted by Sebastian's brooding. He rails, she coos and they fall headlong into a haze of lust and champagne punctuated by the Killers' seductive "A Dustland Fairytale."
Director Rick Lombardo captures the ecstasy of new love in some wonderfully Dionysian filmlike montages, and the writing is undeniably tart and smart. Swipes at yuppie emblems from Whole Foods to Starbucks may not be novel, but they are still funny. Feldman definitely taps into the hollowness of consumer culture and the insatiable need to try and lose ourselves in art.
But it's hard to understand how Sebastian flips from rage and bile to smitten so very quickly. There's not enough chemistry between Kartheiser and Sharma to make the plot's hairpin twists believable. The credibility of the narrative gets even more dicey as Sebastian's brain ricochets from fact to fiction. Surely, the journey from psychosis to clarity would be trickier to navigate than it is here.
To make matters worse, much of the play feels overwritten; all that exposition, however snarky, undercuts what should be a mounting feeling of suspense. Sebastian's dread for the future would be more universal if he were as insightful as he is hostile.
Indeed, one of the puzzling aspects of the production is the lack of potent ambiguity. The staging telegraphs when people and things may well be imaginary, when it would be far more engrossing to leave the audience wondering. A heightened sense of enigma about Sheba's true identity and Sebastian's inner demons would make the play more compelling. The use of multimedia also needs fine-tuning to better capture the snap and pulse of social media.
Still, there's no denying the scope of the play's ambitions and the relevance of its themes. Sebastian's freefall into delusion may well mirror the zeitgeist of the post-9/11 age, which means that great literature may not be the only thing in danger of dying off.
'THE DEATH OF THE NOVEL'
By Jonathan Marc Feldman
THROUGH: Sept. 23
Where: San Jose Rep, 101 Paseo de San Antonio
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)
Tickets: $29-$74, 408-367-7255, www.sjrep.com