Though critics have been heralding the novel’s demise for ages, it seems that the current digital era might finally destroy this venerable tradition. Can this really be the end? The question is mulled over in the San Jose Repertory Theatre‘s new play, The Death of the Novel, but it’s only one of many topics broached in this ambitious production starring Vincent Kartheiser, best known as Mad Men‘s Pete Campbell.

Kartheiser plays Sebastian, a writer unable to follow up on the success of his first novel, despite the efforts of a psychologist and “writer’s block whisperer” played by noted TV actress Amy Pietz (Caroline in the City, The Office, etc.). A firsthand witness to the 9/11 attacks, Sebastian has experienced a cruel string of personal tragedies. Now acutely agoraphobic, he remains confined to his Manhattan apartment, visited only by his buddy Philip (Patrick Kelly Jones) and Claire (Zarah Mahler), a sex worker and aspiring author.

Sebastian no longer believes in literature, at least not serious literature, spending his time instead on television, Nintendo and online media. He justifies this behavior in several nihilistic rants, but it seems to boil down to, “Why take anything seriously if you’re just going to lose it tomorrow?” Things change when he meets Sheba (Vaishnavi Sharma), a liberated Arab immigrant and fan of Sebastian’s work. While her sanguinity clashes with his cynical fatalism, she isn’t what she appears to be, and this intrigues him.

The second act contains some absurd twists, and a subplot critiquing the West’s malignant Islamophobia, while admirable, feels underdeveloped and forced (although timely). With that said, The Death of the Novel is a joy to watch: funny, intelligent and suspenseful, with Kartheiser’s kinetic acting matched by an equally strong supporting cast, and Sharma delivering an especially colorful, charming performance.

The play is almost cinematic in its approach. One scene in which Kartheiser and Sharma leap through the apartment to the tune of a song by the Killers is more film montage than stage show. This effect, further embellished by John Iacovelli’s elaborate, immersive scenic designs, reflects a world where not only the novel, but the theatre (another art form, along with painting and rock & roll, often proclaimed “dead”) has been pushed aside by other media. It’s an interesting way for this partly tragic drama to express its optimism: a supposedly dead art displayed for all to see, imperfect, perhaps, but alive and kicking.

The Death of the Novel
Runs through Sept. 22; $29$74
San Jose Repertory Theatre