Dallas Roberts holding Nicole Pasquale in Nocturne(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Dallas Roberts holding Nicole Pasquale in Nocturne
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Welcome to group therapy at the New York Theatre Workshop, via Adam Rapp's Nocturne. We're the group, and it's a sad young man's turn to tell us his troubles. He doesn't tell us his name; we just know him as The Son (Dallas Roberts). It seems he has a lot on his mind and it all goes back to one split second when, at the age of 17, his life and the lives of his entire family were shattered. He blurts it out right at the start: "I killed my sister."

If only the rest of what he has to tell us were that simple and direct. If this really was a therapy session, we would only have to listen for 50 minutes (and we'd get paid). But this is theater, so it's two hours and 20 minutes, and you have to buy a ticket. At first you might wonder, Where's the director/psychiatrist? Why is this going on so long? Then you discover the reason: The therapy session eventually evolves into something artful and emotionally affecting. Don't walk out during intermission; the second act is powerful stuff.

During the play's first act, you're not only going to think you're in a group therapy session, you'll also have the distinct feeling you're listening to a highly theatricalized reading of a novel. The Son does almost all of the talking, and he speaks in lyrical metaphors, e.g., "Grief does not expire like a candle or a beacon on a lighthouse; it simply changes temperature." It's pretty talk. It's literary talk. It isn't naturalistic, and many theatergoers aren't going to buy it. Despite director Marcus Stern's attempts to jazz it up with gunfire and a knife attack, it's still pretty static stuff.

Act I is all about the accident that led to the sister's gruesome death and its immediate aftermath. The Son finds no understanding or compassion in his mother or father, both of whom are suffering from their own feelings of loss, guilt, and anger. There seems to be no bottom to the decimated family's misery; they can't help each other and they can't help themselves. Eventually, The Son flees his suburban, upper Midwest home and heads for New York City to lose himself in its anonymity.

The play perks up in the second act for a number of reasons, first among them the fact that there is simply more going on. The Son gets a job in a bookstore and immerses himself in literature. (Okay, now we know why he talks like that.) He becomes so enamored of words that he eventually writes an autobiographical novel about the death of his sister. Through the help of a woman he meets--"The Red-Headed Girl with the Grey-Green Eyes" (Marin Ireland)--he gets his book published. He is, however, too emotionally cut-off to make this would-be relationship work out. The two characters' inability to connect is elegantly directed by Stern when he places them naked, back-to-back but not touching in a tightly confined space created by set designer Christine Jones.

Speaking of Jones, her second act set design makes an enormous difference in lending a theatrical vibrancy to the work. The Son is still jabbering away, but now his story is given greater impetus by his new surroundings, epitomized by the image of him sitting in a bathtub that is set perpendicular to the stage. In other words, the audience is looking straight into the tub, and it's not just The Son in the tub; we see a book-strewn floor and an old, manual Underwood typewriter where the dead sister is sitting, hacking away at the keys, the top of her head facing the audience. The image is striking, meaningful, vivid.

Jones' set for the first act, like a museum tableau of the deceased Sister's bedroom, is exquisitely evocative, but the second act is a tour de force of award-winning design that propels the play forward. It culminates in the creation of a ramshackle room in which The Father lies dying. The Son has come back to see him after 15 years. The room is naturalistic and so, at last, is the dialogue between Father and Son. Set design matches writing, which matches direction, which matches acting. The last scene of Nocturne, thanks in large part to the remarkable performance by Will LeBow as The Father, provides an impressive and poignant payoff to what is otherwise an uneven, overwritten work.