Red Light Winter
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 15, 2006
I didn't like Red Light Winter, but I can't and won't deny the raw potency of the thing. There is something about this play that gets in the craw, for better or for worse.
It begins in a small bedroom in a hostel in Amsterdam, where a young man named Matt decides to kill himself. Right after his somewhat halfhearted attempt fails, his friend Davis turns up (these two American men, friends from college, are vacationing in Europe together). Davis has a present for Matt—a prostitute named Christina.
Christina, who appears to be French but, as Matt deduces, is actually also an American, says that she and Davis have just made love. She undresses Matt, takes him to bed, he reaches orgasm almost immediately (it's been a long time since he's been with a woman), and then she exits, leaving behind a tape recorder and the fancy red dress she changed into just before having sex with Matt.
Act Two takes place in New York, in Matt's apartment. About a year has passed. Matt remains obsessed with Christina, with whom he has fallen in love. So when she unexpectedly turns up—looking for Davis, but he gave her Matt's address instead of his own—he believes he is being given a chance to make that particular dream come true. But Christina is just as obsessed with Davis. And of course before the play ends, Davis will appear once again, revitalizing this dysfunctional love triangle.
The character who resonated with me was Matt: though I found it difficult to understand why he was bumming around Europe with Davis (who has almost no redeeming human qualities; surely he can't be said to be an actual friend to anyone, least of all Matt, whose girlfriend he stole some years back), I was completely convinced of his loner's sad grasp for love from an unlikely and unreciprocating other. Playwright-director Adam Rapp and actor Christopher Denham make Matt compelling and understandable, as opposed to pathetic or foolish.
But the more I think about Red Light Winter, the more I believe that Rapp intends Davis, not Matt, to be his protagonist. Although Davis has the least stage time, he's the most instantly interesting person in the story, because he's such a rotter; Gary Wilmes, utterly affectless in his portrayal, gives us a man devoid of feeling or empathy who might be an archetypal post-modern Gen-Xer. In his brief appearance in Act Two, he's both the one that makes things happen and to whom things happen—I won't give away precisely what—and after the play is over, his fate (and Christina's motives for altering it) are the issues we're left to ponder.
I just don't like Davis, not at all; I don't even think I know anybody like him (I hope not). So I found it difficult to care about what happens to him.
As for Christina, she's something of an enigma throughout, perhaps by design, perhaps due to sloppy work on Rapp's part. (Why the false French accent? Why does she leave her dress behind?) Lisa Joyce acts what she's been given, but this amounts to two very different women: someone who at least can pull off pretending to be worldly and sophisticated and intelligent in Act One; someone who is inexpressibly childlike and messed up in Act Two.
Rapp's writing is fluent but writerly (the last play of his that I saw, Nocturne, was novelistic in style; Red Light Winter is vastly more theatrical, but Rapp is still given to long, well-written speeches that never sound like actual speech). His staging is precise and naturalistic, which may harm his work: I wondered if a less realistic-looking pair of rooms (detailed, lifelike set design is by Todd Rosenthal) might have helped me find the larger point Rapp might be making in this piece. As it stands, the play is presented as being just like life, which time and time again I found hard to swallow.