The Playgoer: REVIEW: Red Light Winter

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Thursday, April 27, 2006

REVIEW: Red Light Winter

Photo © Paul Kolnik

Red Light Winter
by Adam Rapp

Over the last five years Adam Rapp has gained a reputation for dark, offbeat, difficult little plays. I had never seen any so I was definitely intrigued to catch his latest. But Red Light Winter is a play about a playwright who falls in love with a hooker. It is not a comedy.

I really don't think I'm missing some layer of irony here. Rapp has written a basically sentimental romance, even if it may be peopled by bad people and ended with an unhappy ending. No matter how clever and snappy the dialogue (the root of Rapp's appeal) it was hard for me to give over to its relentless cliches. (Yes, I know the French cliches are eventually subverted, but let's not spoil the pointless plot twists, shall we?)

In excellent performances (under Rapp's own direction, I should add), Christopher Denham and Gary Wilmes play two former college buds who go to Amsterdam in Act I. It's the alpha-friend's idea to cheer up the over-sensitive playwright, who got depressed when alpha-friend stole and married his longtime girlfriend. So what better than treat him to the fantasy of an ultra-literate, sensitive, and blonde Parisian hooker? Oh, and to add to the fantasies on stage, the hooker shows she can fall in love, too.

Again, I never sensed any self-awareness (let alone subversion) of the hackneyed tropes Rapp is trading in here.Despitee the many incidental laughs, I'm convinced he takes this story utterly seriously. It didn't help my reception to learn in a talkback afterwards that the play is autobiographical. Don't worry, Rapp isn't wallowing in his own sorrows, though. He fessed up to being not the nerdy playwright but the he-man jerk who charitably procured the whore but couldn't help balling her himself. After such trauma and guilt I guess he just had to get this all off his chest.

And this was the lead contender for the Pulitzer??? I won't deny Rapp's flair for dialogue and character. At least the male characters here. The hooker (I'd name her but her name actually becomes a question--so she might as well be called "Hooker") is practically mute most of the script and is unabashedly presented and humiliated as an object. Which is why the first twenty minutes of the play are by far the best. Rapp has built a terrificallyy entertaining--and recognizable--abusive friendship between Wilmes and Denham's characters; and the two actors play the big & little brother dynamic to the hilt. Wilmes presents such a loony, charming, and joyously self-centered variation on the "bad boy" that you can't take your eyes off him. Rapp's biggest mistake, I feel, is in not realizing the best part of his play is about that friendship. After midway through Act One, we never see them together on stage again. (And that means another two hours. This ain't another 90-minute-and-out deal.)

I left mischievously thinking the Pulitzer should have gone to Wilmes. His performance elevates this pedestrian material to the heights of supreme character insight. There's more drama in his crazy eyes and big elastic limbs than in any of the strained emotional searching attempted in Rapp's text.

Addendum, 5/21: Adam Rapp has written me to protest that the play is not "autobiographical." I was sure I remembered right what he said about just the trip to Amsterdam. So I meant the word only in reference to that aspect of the plot, which, admittedly is only the springboard to the play. So if I implied Mr. Rapp has actually done all the awful things his characters do here, I'm sorry.


Anonymous said...

Adam Rapp thinks nihilism is a new idea. He stages it incessantly -- often with perverse sexuality thrown in to heighten the titillation factor. Will anyone who suffered through FASTER ever forget the sight of Chris Messina's great big swinging balls, or a little girl (underage) playing with a fish?

Rapp is like the white trash Neil Labute. He wants so desperately to elevate his cynicism to art, but fame is even more important. Hence the "parental advisory warning" 'sticker' on Red Light Winter's posters. No real artist would approve of such a cheap ploy; one imagines Rapp not only approved it, but suggested it.

Anonymous said...

i think comparing adam rapp to neil la bute is a little harsh. at least, whatever you think of his plays, rapp can write great dialogue and interesting (male) characters. la bute only knows how to come up with a controversial premise (and kill it with utterly lifeless writing)..

Art said...

Rapp's theatrical career was basically launched here in Boston under the wing of Robert Brustein at the ART. A promising partnership that quickly turned to folly.

Rapp's Nocturne was an engaging, interesting, raw and hypnotic experience that was actually an exciting case of the ART's highly conceptual aesthetic supporting and enhancing a new work. (Rather than that same aesthetic being used in most cases to obscure classics.) It was easy to see why Brustein was excited.

However, after that production's critical success, (it went on to a New York run,) Rapp's Animals and Plants bored to tears.

And Stone Cold Dead Serious, (a great title,)was a bad play that was excacerbated by a large, coneptual stage as well as those strange, recurring incidents of unintentional giggles that you are mentioning here. In moments that Rapp appears to try and make us offended, instead he elicits laughter.

I am not sure if this is the intent, but I remember giggling watching Dead Serious and I was convinced, (as you are mentioning here,) that he was taking this seriously.

I have read his other plays and they basically seem the same. Reading reviews of Red, Light Winter I was hoping Rapp had abandoned some of his excesses, but you seem to bring those early Boston productions back to mind.

I remember one critic saying something like the following: "Rapp would like to be the Sam Shepard of working class suburbia, but his talents lie elsewhere, and he better get used to it."