GHOSTS IN THE COTTONWOODS, Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, at Victory Gardens Theater. At 30, Adam Rapp is a rising star with two novels and a handful of plays under his belt. Both novels–Missing the Piano and The Buffalo Tree–were written for the young adult market and have been well received critically. And his plays have been workshopped at some of the most prestigious places in the country, including Steppenwolf’s New Plays Lab.

Not that this means much. These days a growing reputation can have as much to say about the author’s connections, luck, or ability to play political games as it does about his or her talent.

Ghosts in the Cottonwoods has been given every break a new play can get–a place in the Public Theatre’s festival of new plays, a staged reading at the prestigious Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and a world premiere by Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, an energetic, earnest, well-regarded young company–and it’s still crap. There’s not an honest or original minute in this two-hour, one-act mediocrity about a family of violent, dim, moonshine-loving, incest-prone hillbillies, despite the superhuman efforts of director Jeremy B. Cohen, his uniformly excellent cast, and an inspired production staff. At every turn Rapp’s play reminds you of other, better works about backwoods types–Maria Irene Fornes’s Mud, Sam Shepard’s Buried Child, Al Kapp’s Li’l Abner. Even the loathsome Ma and Pa Kettle movies have more to say about life in the hills than this tiresome retread. –Jack Helbig