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Close Up Space

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

David Hyde Pierce
Joan Marcus.

Though no one who's gone toe to toe with one of the myriad bureaucracies scattered within our sprawling government is likely fond of red tape, red ink may be another story. When used by a careful and skilled practitioner of language, it can reveal and illuminate words and thoughts trapped within folds of flabby excess, even if those words' creator may object. Not every writer knows what's good for him or her, something that Molly Smith Metzler conclusively proves in her new play at Manhattan Theatre Club, Close Up Space.

Both she and her lead character, Paul Barrow (David Hyde Pierce), deploy the ink with furious abandon in the first (and only funny) moments of the play. Paul, the senior editor at "a small but incredibly elite" New York publishing house, first appears standing behind an overhead projector on which is displayed a rambling e-mail from the academic dean of the private school Paul's adolescent daughter, Harper, attends.

"Now this is a classic example of a piece that needs hefty editing," Paul says, his voice tinged with exhaustion and anger, yes, but also the passion of a man who loves and believes in his job. He demonstrates his facility with the task by drawing sweeping red beams through every line of the bloated note except for the last part of the last sentence, which he leaves intact (and marks for proper capitalization): "Your daughter Harper is expelled." No message could be clearer: Shorter and more to the point is better than endless, unhinged blabbing.

So why is the rest of Metzler's play crammed to bursting with the latter? That, alas, is the only question worth asking about the rest of this muddled evening, which has been cautiously, if none too subtly, directed by Leigh Silverman. Metzler occasionally strikes a vein of comic ore, as when Paul must deal with the overprotective attitude ("You crossed out pages 82 through 149," she screeches at one point, "and below 'The End' he wrote, 'Finally.'") of his star client, Vanessa Finn Adams (Rosie Perez). But after the first 20 minutes or so, such finds become painfully rare.

The trouble begins with supporting characters that are nowhere near as detailed or real as Paul. Steve (Michael Chernus), Paul's office manager, has begun living in a tent in the lobby after his dog started showing more affection to his roommate; and Bailey (Jessica DiGiovanni), is the easily overwhelmed, foggy-headed new college intern whose application cover letter is not spared Paul's eagle eye, and who vanishes from the action before she's contributed to it. Both belong to a more disjointed evening of unstructured silliness, not the intense exploration of the personal politics of perfection that Paul represents, and don't herald much brilliance to come.

Colby Minifie and David Hyde Pierce
Joan Marcus.

But things don't quite collapse until Harper (Colby Minifie) arrives, decked out in a towering fur hat and speaking nothing but supersonic Russian. She ushers in a listless, bewildering collection of concepts, images, and plot points that echo the magical improbabilities of Sarah Ruhl, but with even less common sense and discipline. Steve incessantly calls Harper Oksana. All of the furniture in Paul's office, which is not incidentally located on the 24th floor of a Midtown office building, is stolen overnight. And the fragile non-peace between Harper and Paul, whom she still blames for her mother's death a few years ago, is severely but predictably tested.

Not nearly as much as your patience is, however. Once those charming yet plausible early absurdities vanish, they never return, and the plodding psychological examination that follows seems to belong in a different play altogether (not least because a third of it is conducted in Russian). Metzler may be trying to make a subtle comment on the dangers of letting work and home life intertwine as much as Paul has, or that words ought to always mean less than the humans who created them. But by exposing us to Paul's regimented, yet endearingly logical, worldview in the opening scenes, she establishes the expectation that it will prove important later and that we're expected to care about it.

Neither is the case. Metzler demands we sympathize with Harper, despite her leading on the dopey but well-meaning Steve, colluding with Vanessa (because, of course, writers have relationships with their editors' daughters all the time), and then committing several acts of horrifying cruelty against Paul because of faults in her own personality. Yet her treatment of him is so callous, almost in "revenge film" territory, that it's clear we're supposed to loathe him—though he's driven only to "emaciate prose and make it obey." Metzler's last-minute explanation of why this is akin to a crime isn't just incredible, it's also a violation of the faith she convinced us to invest in Paul in those realistic curtain-raising moments.

This is pure theatrical bait-and-switch that corrupts the play and almost everyone involved with it. The two exceptions are Todd Rosenthal, who's designed a cramped yet sumptuous exposed-brick office set that looks like the kind of homey place you'd want to work in, and Hyde Pierce. He's terrific as Paul, intricately projecting the man's repressed jitters and barely concealed impatience at a world that won't bend to his provable whims, and he makes the later twisting and turning of the character into a hapless victim of his lessers' acidic largess almost acceptable.

With the exception of Perez, who finds pleasing spark in Vanessa's initial (and more sensibly angry) appearance, the cast members grate with their cutesy, over-the-top deliveries of lines that, admittedly, would challenge even reigning masters of understatement. (Minifie is especially shameless in her broad laugh-baiting.) Silverman, who also staged the more compelling crossed-wire-communication play Chinglish on Broadway this season, can't wrangle all these disparate into anything dramatically coherent or emotionally recognizable. There are too many pieces and too little connecting tissue.

That suggests that what Metzler needed most was, what do you know, an editor! Or, as Paul describes any overeager writer's missteps: "...they have a brave, raw skeleton.... But then, they get hysterical because the skeleton is bare, so they glop on muscle and fat and needless characters and soul-deadening emotional schlock, until finally, their prose is prosaic, bloated and has no thesis, a phony humility, an annoying sentimentality and sundry other grating tropes." It's nice to know that Close Up Space possesses at least some self-awareness, but it's almost everything else that's a problem—and one that's probably too imposing to fix only with a liberal dose of the still-much-needed red ink.

Close Up Space
Through February 5, 2012
New York City Center —Stage I, 131 West 55th Street
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