Review: San Jose Rep’s ‘Novel’ needs to sharpen its truth

Sebastian (Vincent Kartheiser) starts a relationship with Sheba (Vaishnavi Sharma) in “The Death of the Novel” at San Jose Repertory Theatre. (Photo by Kevin Berne)

Sebastian has a very funny way of going outside to grab kabobs off the grill.

Put on a jacket. Make sure the hood covers the head. Walk out onto the patio to the grill, which is a whopping two feet away, grab the food, and then return.

While agoraphobia is not exactly a disorder that is steeped in hilarity, it is moments like these in San Jose Rep’s “The Death of the Novel” that find the humor in a dire situation.

In this post 9/11 world, Sebastian (Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser) is a best-selling Manhattan author. He creates beautiful word combinations, so much so that a lovely young siren named Sheba (Vaishnavi Sharma) does what she has to in order to get close to him. Which includes working an encounter with Sebastian’s best friend Philip (Patrick Kelly Jones), the key to entering the author’s apartment.

Adding to the mix is Sebastian’s trusty prostitute plaything Claire (Zarah Mahler), who is hoping to blossom into a budding author herself. Finally, there is his therapist Perry (Amy Pietz), working with Sebastian at the behest of his publisher, a “writer’s block whisperer” working to get to the bottom of his melancholy nature.

While the play has many nice moments and fine performances, it’s the script itself that doesn’t quite gel into much more than the story of a character that spends all his time being catty and snarky to anyone who comes near him.

Jonathan Marc Feldman’s (Swing Kids, HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon) script seems to have fallen in love with its own voice. Director Rick Lombardo does what he could with a script that is not terribly interesting in the first place. Kartheiser is given the unenviable task of making Hamlet’s line load seem like a walk-on role by comparison, but ultimately, the whole script is doomed by its total implausibility in a Sorkinesque sort of way.

The performances were all very well delivered. Kartheiser easily has the toughest of tasks, and is at his best when his Sebastian stops trying to function as the smartest and angriest guy in the room and focuses on engaging his counterparts. Sharma does very well when she is thinking on her feet, making some wonderful discoveries as she continuously changes the game, seemingly trying to spin her way out of the web of deceit she has created. She is a vision in red, always moving in slow motion, constantly moving throughout scenic designer John Iacovelli’s gorgeous set with catlike tread.

Jones displayed his own power on the role of Philip, who epitomizes the term “loyal to a fault.” It is his truth and his aggression that forced Sebastian into every important choice he was forced to make, and Jones worked hard to embody the task.

To further accentuate the implausibility was Sebastian’s relationship with his therapist Perry. The relationship between the two was not exactly steeped in reality, most notably a moment where Perry tells Sebastian how she really feels about him. It’s moments like these that made the resolution and Perry’s role in it completely unbelievable.

The show, while having plenty of nice moments, still ran for far too long at more than 2 and ½ hours. And one thing happened to me that never feels good when I watch a play – I stopped caring. The blueprint for a wonderful arc is most certainly there. Unfortunately, it’s just not there yet.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

San Jose Repertory Theatre presents “The Death of the Novel”
Written by Jonathan Marc Feldman
Directed by Rick Lombardo
Starring Vincent Kartheiser of “Mad Men”
The word: A script that falls in love with its own voice is not enough to engage.
Stars: 3 out of 5
Through Sept. 22nd
San Jose Repertory Theatre
101 Paseo De San Antonio, San Jose, CA 95113
For tickets, visit www.sjrep.com or call (408) 367-7255

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