There was so much pre-opening talk about the amount of nudity and the graphic depiction of sexual acts in Adam Rapp’s latest play “Red Light Winter” that it could have had the effect of undermining the more overriding and provocative theme of this incisively written, dramatically involving drama. If the apparent theme — you always hurt the one you love — appears subtly indexed within the dramatic context that involves the turbulent and testy relationship of two long-time buddies cum veteran antagonists and a prostitute, it, nevertheless, reverberates in the mind long after the play is over. Even if you are familiar with Rapp’s work, including last season’s difficult-to-sit-through (for this reviewer) “Finer Noble Gases,” and found his style to be uncomfortably visceral, “Red Light Winter” re-introduces to us (and me) a playwright who can, indeed, employ his unquestionably honed skills in the service of a totally compelling and accessible drama about the perils of unrequited love.
In an interview, Rapp stated that there was a lot in the play that he was drawing upon that was personal. For his sake, let’s hope it didn’t go that far. It is, however, the sense of torturous reality that propels this unsparingly gritty and graphic drama. Rapp has written three key roles that combined have the kind of psychological complexity, intellectual savvy, and emotional baggage that could sustain a drama only half as good. While it is rarely a good thing for a director to stage his own play, Rapp’s work appears as flawless and on the mark as is the work of the three exceptional actors.
Involving sexual and personal deceptions and defections, the play begins cleverly as the noticeably depressed “emerging” playwright Matt (Christopher Denham) is preparing to commit suicide by hanging himself with his own belt in a seedy hostel room in Amsterdam’s red light district. His failure to complete this act is equal parts his own ineptitude as it is the return to the room of Davis (Gary Wilmes), his friend since college days. A successful publishing executive with a gregariously empowering personality, the exhilarated Davis has just returned from a day of whoring and drugs, a day that the enervated Matt was in no condition to share. Matt is just finishing a round of antibiotics necessitated by a severe intestinal infection and certainly not prepared for the arrival of Christina (Lisa Joyce), a young, very pretty prostitute who Davis has brought home as a gift for his despondent buddy.
Although she is a little difficult to understand as she affects a French accent, Joyce is as enigmatic as she is mesmerizing. As the would-be-chanteuse turned prostitute, Christina dons a seductive red gown and sings plaintively a song of her own before undressing. The play begins to percolate when Davis leaves Matt and Christina alone. Clothes come off, a condom comes out and…well, under the glow of a dim red light, it’s over pretty fast — but for reasons not to be revealed here. The disclosure that the accommodating Christina has already spent enough quality time with Davis to ignite a feeling of genuine passion for him is as dramatically significant as is the emotional bond that is destined to tie Matt to Christine.
The crux of the relationship between Matt and Christine is revealed one year later in Matt’s grungy, low-rent, one-room apartment on the lower East Side. When Christina comes to the address that Davis had given as his she discovers that this is where Matt lives, still in the throes of “emerging” and surviving on temp jobs. Even as Matt reveals to Christina his obsession with her (he wears her red gown to bed) the play clearly pivots toward the tragic in the wake of Davis’ subsequent, ill-fated visit.
Boasting the original Steppenwolf cast, the impact of the carefully defined and refined performances is palpable. Denham provides a stunning portrait of a despicably self-absorbed man, perversely motivated to betray a friendship, and almost demonically driven to amoral and bestial behavior. Wilmes scores brilliantly as the conflicted writer whose neurotic obsession with Christina provides him with a will to live.
If it isn’t over-reaching a bit, perceptive audiences may see shades of Iago and Othello in the Davis and Matt relationship as well as a glimpse of I Am a Camera’s Sally Bowles in Christina. Now that should whet the appetite of any adventurous theatergoer.
Todd Rosenthal’s setting for the bare hostel room is as evocative as is the book-stocked East Village apartment. Lighting designer Keith Parham takes his cue respectfully from the aptly named red light district. And Michelle Tesdall supplies the attire that is aptly worn and removed with aplomb.
Generously encrusted with coruscating wit, this very fine play will undoubtedly increase Rapp’s already almost cultish fan base. For the record, the sex scenes are anything but gratuitous and inform the characters as specifically as they do the plot. ***
“Red Light Winter,” open-ended run, Barrow Street Theater, 27 Barrow Street at 7th Avenue. $65. 212-239-6200.