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Red Light Winter

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Cruelty doesn't come much more casual than in Red Light Winter, Adam Rapp's new play at the Barrow Street Theater. In this world, as in so many the determinedly demented Rapp creates, everything comes at a curdling cost. Want friendship, romance, sex, or even just trust? It will cost you at least your unwilling, unknowing soul. And maybe your life.

Yes, to Rapp, everything is a germ-encrusted bargaining chip in a universe where nothing is had for free. It's a harsh outlook, but one Rapp excels in presenting with a pre-apocalyptic sense of occasion. The results are sometimes horrifying (Faster), sometimes heartrending (Blackbird), and sometimes somewhere in between (Finer Noble Gases). But they're always interesting.

Such is the case with Red Light Winter, which succeeds on its own terms while never supplanting Rapp's best, worst, or weirdest plays. It touches quite concretely on feelings like passion and loss, especially as packaged in the wrapping of desperate need. But this production, directed by Rapp and imported from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, comes most vividly to life only when the darkest aspects of humanity are embraced with abandon. A satisfactory exploration of love, the play's other subject, remains more elusive.

At the very least, none of the three characters has a clue what it really is. Matt (Christopher Denham) is a frustrated playwright just coming out of a three-year funk, having been unceremoniously dumped by his longtime girlfriend for his best friend Davis (Gary Wilmes). While on a trip to Amsterdam, Davis brings to their hostel room a prostitute, Christina (Lisa Joyce), to help usher Matt back to the world of the living. Not, however, without first taking a piece of her for himself.

Ah, but what piece? Certainly the expected physical component; that's to be expected from the unquenchably lascivious Davis, played by Wilmes with a fiery, detached nastiness. But, in arranging and executing his deals, he's captured a bit of Christina's heart. She in turn, displaying both an innate wounded honesty and a slowly cracking fa├žade no one else can penetrate, captures Matt's.

Sex alone can't resolve this. (For the record, the much-reported graphic nature of the play's intense sex scenes has been grossly exaggerated.) Conversation is similarly of no help, as it can exacerbate problems as easily as fix them. The only solution is to call a stalemate, and remove the three to Matt and Davis's home turf, New York City the following year to let the destructive results of their hours together in Amsterdam come to full fruition.

That consumes all of Act II, which finds Rapp operating at his vicious, unyielding best, and delivering the kind of 20-car-pileup emotional highs and lows that characterize his most distinctive work. The confrontations, between Matt and Christina and between Christina and Davis, are acidic, unforgiving, and unflinching in their devotion to peeling back the alternating layers of affection and hatred (often indistinguishable here) from which these people's existences are constructed.

The first act is so flooded with exposition and poorly camouflaged sentiment that, while events are developed with clarity, you're kept at too great a distance to become intimately involved. Rapp's staging, which often functions in low or ugly light (of Keith Parham's design), also feels empty, leaving too much room for these volatile particles to dangerously coexist. The second act, for which scenic designer Todd Rosenthal provides a claustrophobic East Village studio instead of a spacious Amsterdam loft, has the proper feeling.

Wilmes is the only one who connects with his character as written: a suave, disgustingly likable jerk who corrodes the lives of everyone around him. But neither Denham nor Joyce portray much for Wilmes to wear away: Denham's Matt is too thoroughly hopeless, betraying not a shred of possibility of personal redemption; Joyce tries too hard to play up Christina's mystery and deception, telegraphing from the start that all isn't as it seems, and leaving the second act's crucial surprises to fizzle more than sizzle.

Some of this, though, is the fault of the writing: Any play beginning with a suicide attempt must approach succeeding scenes with utmost care, and delicate, fragile approaches are not exactly Rapp's specialty. His forte is in establishing and then shattering illusions, usually of the kind we don to protect ourselves but that instead end up doing us in. When Rapp does that with these characters, Red Light Winter occupies its niche as one of the most absorbing shows currently on the boards. When he doesn't, his lines and scenes become, like hookers waiting outside the first act's hostel door, a dime a dozen.

Red Light Winter
Running Time: 2 hours and 25 minutes, including one intermission
Barrow Street Theater, 27 Barrow Street at 7th Avenue; 1 block south of Christopher Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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