The Death of the Novel
Supposedly about "post 9/11 America," Jonathan Marc Feldman’s world premiere "The Death of the Novel," which inaugurates San José Rep’s 2012-2013 season, is all over the stage and page, as a play about a writer who wrote a book then became blocked.
An enfant terrible scribe, barefoot and scruffy-bearded agoraphobic Sebastian Justice ("Mad Men’s" Vincent Kartheiser, seen mostly in profile from house right) outlines and opines, with flat rapid-fire delivery, his rich white people problems while sitting in his comfy and spacious New York City apartment (designed by John Iacovelli).
Sebastian’s sex with call girl-cum-aspiring writer Claire (a trendy, leggy Zarah Mahler) makes him a "literary pimp" with her regular visits. His enviable do-whatever-you-want, whenever-you-want schedule is punctuated by visits from his "writer’s block-whisperer" therapist Perry (a solid and underutilized Amy Pietz), his globetrotting, keffiyeh-appropriating friend Philip (over-earnest Patrick Kelly Jones), and Philip’s latest ethnic pick-up Sheba (endlessly hair-flipping Vaishnavi Sharma). Philip is in Manhattan between human rights assignments, and finds lust/love at the neighborhood Korean market.
The inherent intertextuality has possibilities: this is a play about a book, written by the rather obviously named Justice, who, as a young man, witnessed the planes crash into the Twin Towers. He’s then unable to go outside or produce new work, yet able to live well off the literary residuals from his debut novel. It’s difficult to discern exactly why he’s afraid, despite Philip’s on-the-nose observation that "you want people to leave you, that’s why you stay in your apartment."
Sebastian Justice is seemingly imprisoned by his own wall of words, a missive that covers many topics and is interrupted by too many social media references. There’s a lot of talking about talking, from tennis to climate change, and little humor to break up the chatter. The biggest laugh line is when a Prius and the Weber grill on Sebastian’s balcony are compared to clean energy and coal. Other puzzling literary declarations include "memoirs are the best hiding place for fiction."
From the opening, it’s clear that Middle Eastern-raised and British-educated Sheba has a crush on the author and his work, and is merely using the best friend to get Justice. Since we’re aware of her stalker-like agenda, their eventual affair is predictable. Sheba’s origins emerge as a lie, as Facebook fiction, and are also anti-climactic. Both Sheba and Justice appear to be "narcissistic manipulators," so it’s hard to care about them, together or apart.
Spoiler alert? When, after shacking up for an intensive fortnight, Sheba evaporates or disappears or becomes part of Sebastian’s imagination, or something, the grill then becomes the catalyst for Sebastian’s salvation. He throws the device onto the street below, damaging a car and causing his arrest, we later learn. In the final scene, he returns to his flat miraculously cured of his former ailment. It seems the black metal orb has more curative powers than psycho- or sex-therapy combined.
Shifty Sheba likes ideas in books because they are "fixed on the page so they stay alive forever." Perhaps this play, in order to fully realize all its ideas and live in perpetuity, should move to a shelf.
"The Death of the Novel" runs through September 22 at San José Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San José, CA. For info or tickets, contact 408-367-7255 or visit http://www.sjrep.org/