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Paul Sparks and Connor Barrett in Finer Noble Gases
(Photo © Sandra Coudert)
Finer Noble Gases will not appeal to everyone; the full-frontal urination scene alone will put some people off. However, those looking for an adventurous and boundary-defying theatrical work should definitely check out Adam Rapp's dark comedy about alienation, drug addiction, paranoia, and arrested development.

Set in a run-down, graffiti-covered apartment inhabited by members of the rock band Less, Rapp's play centers around Chase (Paul Sparks) and Staples (Robert Beitzel), two twentysomething struggling musicians who while away the hours tripping on drugs and watching television. After Lynch (Michael Chernus), another band member, kicks in the TV screen, they attempt to formulate a plan to obtain a replacement.

The brilliance of Rapp's writing is not found in the play's plot but, rather, in the idiosyncratic character details and the intentional breakdown of narrative structure. It's possible that the entire play -- or most of it, at any rate -- is a drug-induced fever dream. As Finer Noble Gases progresses, the action becomes more and more surreal. Director Michael John Garcés captures the bizarre tone of the piece and is unafraid to wallow in its nastier moments, such as the aforementioned urination scene and instances of vomiting and spitting.

Sparks -- who recently earned a Drama Desk nomination for his performance in another Rapp play, Blackbird -- is terrific. His off-kilter attitude and skillful physicalization of Chase are humorous and convincing. Beitzel is also quite good as the pill-popping Staples. Chernus radiates a quiet menace, while Ray Rizzo, as the fourth band member, named Speed, spends most of the time passed out on the floor in his underwear. As the guys' downstairs neighbor, Gray, Connor Barrett displays a nervous energy that's a nice contrast to the laid-back inertia of the Less musicians.

Van Santvoord's scenic design of the squalid apartment is the perfect backdrop for the stage action, while Elizabeth Hope Clancy's costumes give immediate clues to the characters' personalities. Ben Stanton's lighting design is moody and effective, and the strobes and other flashing lights that he incorporates towards the play's end are visually dynamic. No composer is credited in the program, but the one song that the band performs sounds terrific, melding indie rock with a bit of grunge and pop. Rizzo proves to be a talented drummer, and Beitzel's vocals have a plaintive quality that makes the tune soar.

According to the press materials, the title of the play refers to the chemical term for gases that do not readily attach to other elements to form a compound. It's meant as a metaphor for the isolation of the play's characters and, as such, it seems particularly apt. Chase, Staples, and the rest cannot seem to connect to anyone, including each other; though they inhabit the same space, each man lives in his own separate, lonely world.

Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre is presenting Finer Noble Gases as part of an Adam Rapp Festival that also includes a benefit screening of Rapp's debut feature film, Winter Passing; readings of his play Nocturne; and the release of a new collection of his plays from Faber & Faber. The attention that the company is paying to this young writer is well deserved. Rapp has a unique theatrical voice, and I look forward to more and more of his work being produced on New York City stages.

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