Gompers, Arcola Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

Gompers - the town in Adam Rapp's new play - is emphatically not the "hope" capital of America.

Gompers - the town in Adam Rapp's new play - is emphatically not the "hope" capital of America. The steel mill has closed down, leaving the lives of the inhabitants blighted by long-term unemployment, inadequate health insurance, a polluted river, and no civic spaces. You get a dizzying impression of how culturally empty the town must be when a girl declares wistfully that "Gompers used to have a mall".

Now, though, there are ambiguous signs that faith in the future may be restored. A gambling boat is sailing their way, dangling the prospect of jobs. More unnervingly, a blue Jesus has descended from the cross in a local church and has been spotted walking on water. And there's a mysterious golden treasure in a cardboard box around which people gather in laughing wonder.

Rapp first made an impact here a couple of years ago with Blackbird at the Bush. That play focused on a couple of wrecked drifters (an incontinent Gulf War veteran and a heroin-addicted former stripper) in a squalid New York squat. With Gompers, the dramatist's gift for presenting desperation with a bleak, compassionate humour and his weakness for laying on the misfortune with a trowel are once again powerfully apparent. Here, though, instead of a claustrophobic two-hander, Rapp gives us a kind of grungy, poetic soap opera. There are no fewer than 10 characters, mostly the residents of an apartment complex, whose quirks are deftly delineated by the fine cast in Roisin McBrinn's spare, eloquent production.

From the outset, when a young man exposes to a friend the stomach wounds he has inflicted on himself, the play announces its preoccupation with death and suicide. The shy, somewhat sentimentally depicted love that develops between teenage Molly (Lisa Diveney) and her black friend Stromile (Nick Oshikanlu) is shadowed by two morbid questions. Will she abort the nine-week-old baby fathered by Noah Lee Margetts' excellent Dent, the hunky, drug-dealing landlord? Will Stromile help his Aids-racked gay guardian (Paul Lloyd) to kill himself? And so on.

Rapp has a talent for fashioning vivid oddballs who hit the stage running - exemplified here by the nutty Korean war veteran (Charles David Anderson) who is still living in 1961, and by Jeremy Legat's winning and worrying White Steve, whose insolent, destructive flamboyance is designed to distract the world from the fact that he's a homeless 13-year-old scavenger. But the dramatist's narrative skills lag some way behind. For example, having established the blue Christ as a dangerous symbol (people lose money first and then life when they spot him), Rapp does so little with the figure in plot terms that he might as well have left him in peace on the cross.

To 18 September (020-7503 1646)