“DEATH OF THE NOVEL”
SAN JOSÉ, CA -- How could a woman who had been infatuated with a man for a long time, who feels that she knows him and that he understands her completely, leave him after scheming for months to meet him, managing to arouse his passion and shortly after declaring that she loves him and feels happy in their relationship?
We were sure that we were going to learn why at the end of the world premiere of THE DEATH OF THE NOVEL, written by playwright Jonathan Marc Feldman, the play that opened the 2012-2013 Season of S.J. Rep, but the playwright apparently got lost along with his characters in his convoluted story and when he reached the end, left the audience with many unanswered questions.
Directed by RICK LOMBARDO, and acted by VINCENT KARTHEISER, better known for enthralling television audiences with his role of Peter Campbell in the AMC hit, “Mad Men” and actress VAISHNAVI SHARMA the play is provocative: Watching the horror of bodies falling from the top of the World Trade Center on 9/11 from the window of his Tribeca apartment in 2001, Sebastian Justice (KARTHEISER) a young novel writer becomes agoraphobic. A person with Agoraphobia is a person who finds hard to feel safe in any type of place with a large number of people because the sick person fears that he/she may have a panic attack that doesn’t want others to witness.
As a result of his experience and becaise of the death of his mother, when he was ten years old, and his father a few years after, Sebastian, now suffers from a Mental Block (inability to write) and his agoraphobia makes him so fearful of going outside that for two whole years has refused to leave the comfort of his apartment.
The young writer is wealthy (He lives on the royalties of his first novel) and because he is also aware of his problem, to help himself cope with his mental condition, he has hired Perry (AMY PIETZ) who as a psychologist cannot prescribe him drugs, but comes to talk to him for an hour every week trying to convince him to leave his apartment, go back to a normal life and resume his writing. For her “house calls” Perry charges Sebastian $400.00 and hour.
The play starts with Sheba al Emari (VAISHNAVI SHARMA), a gorgeous Middle Eastern woman standing alone on the bare stage holding Sebastian’s novel in her arms and pressing it, adoringly, against her chest. As she does, she admits her infatuation with Sebastian Justice, who is the book’s author. One can see Sheba's passion reflected in her expressive dark eyes. Apparently, when she read the novel before she was captivated by a particular line. She reads aloud: “The love was pumping into my veins like novocaine.”
From there, the play moves to Sebastian’s (KARTHEISER) luxurious apartment where the young novelist (who is consumed by grief) is talking with Amy his psychiatrist (PIETZ). His first soliloquy is very long and in his conversation, with Amy, his words do not sound natural either. He talks about many things: about the planet, about global warming, about tennis and about all these people living and dying. Apparently he is absorbed with the theme of death. Because of it, he sees no purpose in living.
Sadly, as Sebastian is represented in the play, his character does not inspire empathy from the audience. KARTHEISER portrays a Sebastian who is very intelligent but extremely cold, self centered, pompous, and apparently very proud of his accomplishments. His attitude gives us the impression that he believes that he can buy anything, because he is rich.
As if to prove our point, we see Claire (ZARAH MAHLER) another weekly visitor to his bolted door apartment. Claire is a young girl with a nice figure who for a hundred dollars an hour gives Sebastian sexual satisfaction.
We learn that Claire is also a writer and it becomes clear during their short conversations (Sebastian treats Clair like an object of pleasure) that what she really wants from Sebastian is his help to sell her short stories. She had given them to him and he has them in his desk but he did never read them. In the play, Claire is a minor character, yet, perhaps with the only purpose to shock the audience, because their scene doesn’t move the action, we observe her in an act of kinky sex with Sebastian.
Sebastian's life becomes interesting, however, when Sheba (SHARMA) appears in his apartment. Sebastian has a friend, Phillip (PATRICK KELLY) who is his only friend, and Phillip had met Sheba on the street. He became infatuated with the “mystery woman” from the Middle East. After revealing to Sebastian her fascinating life story, Sebastian compares her to a novel.
What happens next is a series of scenes in which we see Sebastian falling madly in love with Sheba (both pictured on the left) the woman whose turbulent past if filled with stories of her life growing up in Saudi Arabia/
The problem is that Sheba, like Sebastian, has a mental condition. She is delusional (A serious mental illness involving Psychosis, or the ability to to tell what is real from what is imagined. So, between Sebastian’s mental condition and Sheba’s mental condition the focus of the story is lost completely.
As a play, THE DEATH OF THE NOVEL also has problems. One of them is that because both of the main characters have complex mental illnesses most people in the audience are unable to identify with either one of them.
Another serious flaw in the play is that Sebastian, the principal character has completely lost his motivation. Sebastian wants nothing. He seems to be contempt (and probably feels secure) to live behind the locked and bolted doors of his apartment, depending on others to fulfill his needs, having his groceries delivered to him and spending his days playing computer games, reading e-books, or listening to music. While he admits to his psychiatrist he feels depressed some times, not once he mentions missing the world outside. or express his desire to change.
From the beginning of the play, Sheba had a definite motivation: she wants to meet Sebastian. Yet what destroys the story, is that when she finally meets him, and even manages to seduce him. she does something completely out character and we, the audience never learn why.
The play is much too long and even when most of the dialogue sounds “natural” it needs to be shortened. On the positive side the acting of each one of the characters is superb. Specially the acting of Sebastian (KARTHEISER) who has to portray different moods: depression, angst, delirium, to name a few. The actor was able to portray each one in a believable manner.
Excellent also was Sheba, specially playing her role as seductress. She looked very natural telling Sebastian, as Scherezade did to her husband in “One thousand Nights” a thousand stories of her imagined past. While in concept, THE DEATH OF THE NOVEL is provocative, it needs more work.
L-R PATRICK KELLY JONES as Phil and VINCENT KARTHEISER as Sebastian
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