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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Were Christopher Denham and Adam Rapp separated at birth? In the wake of their recent collaboration on Rapp's play Red Light Winter (in which Denham is currently starring), it seemed plausible. But now that Denham's new play, cagelove, has opened at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater under Rapp's direction, the waters are even muddier. Judging by what's onstage, it's impossible to tell where one's talent ends the other's begins.

This is an unhappy thing in this unhappy play, which likely would have been juicier and dicier had Rapp actually written it himself. Denham shares Rapp's dark, rather twisted view of relationship politics, in which everyone demands something (if seldom anything as simple as affection or sex) but is unwilling to yield any part of themselves in return. In cagelove, as in many of Rapp's plays, acts that seem utterly selfless are soon revealed to be the most selfish imaginable.

But Denham does not yet understand two crucial things that Rapp only learned through trial and error: First, you cannot merely pay lip service to this emotional outlook, but you must saturate your characters with it. Second, and more important, without the twinkling possibility of hope, your work will be too impenetrably bleak to take the audience along with you. It's the latter that corrodes cagelove, and all but reduces it to a nihilistic theatrical exercise devoid of light, life, and point.

One can understand Denham making that choice, as that's precisely the mindset of his central character, Katie (Gillian Jacobs). She's a young photographer who's all but withdrawn from life and her fiancé Sam (Daniel Eric Gold) after her ex-boyfriend James viciously raped her. She and Sam are sure James is safe behind bars now, but terrifying phone calls, happenings around the apartment they share, and the increasingly odd behavior of Katie's sister Ellen (Emily Cass McDonnell) suggest that something else may be going on.

Lest you feel too much sympathy for Katie, she's far from an innocent victim: She's keeping some dangerous secrets from Sam, who's as obsessive and protective in his own way as James is in his. As Katie and Sam's problems deepen, the boundaries between Sam and James disappear until it's no longer entirely clear who's the bigger threat to Katie. It's not long until you're left with no concrete ideas of who any of these people are.

That might be frustrating if we felt we were supposed to know them, or if Denham knew them. Neither is the case: He introduces these ciphers to us reluctantly, as if to artificially prolong the cynical drama (as it is, the play runs a scant 90 minutes). And the obfuscation they practice, toward each other and toward us, grows wearying quickly, never feeling like more than a dramatic device implemented by a playwright unable to get his characters to communicate their feelings indirectly.

Denham is trying to use their words and actions as emotional placeholders, a fascinating, Rappian idea that can't be handled this banally if it's going to work. One imagines, for example, that Katie's detachment could be better illumined than with endless variations on the Spaghetti-Os theme song. Or that Sam's duplicitous nature could be communicated without his parading about in a mask that closely resembles the face of Katie's attacker. Everything contributes to an angry world full of angry people from which there is no escape. Rapp's better plays, such as the intimately touching Blackbird, aren't afraid to unveil beauty within even the most consummate ugliness. For Denham, ugliness is its own reward.

Rapp's direction, at least, is sharp, and at times terrifying in the ways it exposes these trapped people as the animals they are. (The bars that completely cover the windows of John McDermott's sunny apartment set, though, might be pushing it.) And Rapp elicits from Gold and Jacobs some excellent performances for material this intentionally nonspecific: Gold has worked up an especially complex internal psychology for Sam that brings an astonishing consistency to all of Sam's actions; Jacobs vacillates between indifference, anger, and fear, in whiplash-inducing ways that make perfect sense for the tortured Katie.

Only McDonnell disappoints: She's giving the same performance here she gave last season in Indoor/Outdoor. There she was playing a house cat; here, as more of a tigress but with the metaphorical claws still extended, her demure emotional manipulation feels hopelessly adolescent.

But so does Denham's writing, which relies so heavily on shock value and the unknowable mysteriousness and danger of love that cagelove feels inescapably immature throughout. That Rapp is on hand to provide a seasoned, adult perspective is welcome; hopefully his mentoring and guidance will help Denham, who has yet to develop a succinct voice and style clearly and effectively his own.

Through June 18
Running Time: 90 minutes
Rattlestick Theatre, 224 Waverly Place
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Smarttix

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