Rapp does flesh out these themes but veers into mystical territory when elements of Tobin's novel, also called "The Metal Children," begin manifesting themselves. He also gives Tobin a weighty backstory—his wife has just left him for a younger man, and he's spiraling into drug and alcohol dependence—and a bizarre encounter with a freakishly mature high school student named Vera, which I just didn't believe.
The tension between the supporters of the book and its opponents provides the strongest basis for credible conflict. Rapp wisely portrays the citizens bent on banning the book as multidimensional and articulate. The most effective scene is the debate in the school's auditorium which opens the second act. Each character, not a caricature among them, speaks in favor of or against the novel with conviction. Then the hungover Tobin delivers a heartfelt monologue about the events which inspired the novel and how he wasn't trying to make trouble for anyone, just tell a story. If the play had stayed on this level of emotional honesty, it would have been a devastating drama of clashing values. But there are too many weird flights of fancy, most of them involving Vera and a cult of girls who have adopted Tobin's book as their bible.
Despite the excesses, "Metal Children" offers many moving moments and details. When Vera describes Tobin's crying in his sleep as sounding like "a toy train whistling in a basement," it captures his pain with stunning clarity. As Tobin, Billy Crudup takes what could have been a self-pitying bore and makes him a wounded little boy trying to grow up. The supporting cast is especially impressive, David Greenspan, Betsy Aidem, Guy Boyd, Susan Blommaert, Connor Barrett, Halley Wegryn Gross, Jessy Hodges, and Phoebe Strole creating fully realized cultural warriors on both sides of the divide.
Presented by and at the Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th St., NYC. May 19–June 13. Tue., 7 p.m.; Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 3 p.m. (212) 353-0303 or www.vineyardtheatre.org. Casting by Henry Russell Bergstein.