Red Light Winter

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Somewhere in the middle of the shapeless, plodding first act of Red Light Winter, the protagonist–a socially inept, perpetually “emerging” playwright, Matt–describes the play he’s working on. A train slams into a stalled automobile, killing a woman and her baby and reducing her toddler son to a vegetable while leaving her husband unscathed. A few years later, under the pretext of investigating the accident, the engineer meets with the husband and eventually admits his part in the accident, asking if there’s anything he can do to atone. Yes, the man says. You can kill my son.

It’s the play Adam Rapp should have written instead of Red Light Winter. What’s necessary to a plot is there: a concise action with powerful consequences. It’s the kind of play often found on American stages a half century ago but seldom written now. It’s a play that shows how people react to pivotal, irrevocable moments. A play, in short, that matters. Despite the hype and heat surrounding Rapp, what happens in Red Light Winter doesn’t matter except to his three desperate, overly theatrical characters: the skittish Matt; his ambitious best friend, Davis; and long-suffering prostitute Christina.

Instead of crucial events and subtle characterizations, Rapp comes up with convenient personal oddities that are more often displayed than dramatized. It seems Matt was so traumatized by a girlfriend who dumped him three and a half years earlier that he’s still prone to sudden bouts of sobbing–and hasn’t been with a woman since. While he and Davis are visiting Amsterdam, Davis brings Christina to Matt’s hotel room hoping a quick lay will help. But Matt’s lost all confidence and can barely look at her. Christina has been treated as property for so long–she was even paid to marry her husband, a closeted gay French lawyer–that she becomes infatuated with the married Davis, who poses as a sensitive guy while giving her a test drive before handing her over to Matt. After Matt makes small talk with her for a good 45 minutes (Christina must be the only Amsterdam hooker who doesn’t watch the clock), he fucks her for all of 12 seconds, then becomes hopelessly obsessed with her.

Behind all the hyperbolic feeling and idle chatter that bloat the first act is the dilemma of unrequited love. It’s more than enough to hang a play on, as Chekhov showed in The Cherry Orchard. But this careful anatomist used such situations to reveal the delicate, absurd workings of the human heart. Though Rapp has said in interviews that the play is based on an autobiographical episode, he’s ignored the situation’s potential–Christina’s emotional turmoil would have made a much more interesting story than Matt’s broken heart–and created a work that verges on melodrama. The human heart takes a backseat to adolescent fantasy and theatrical expedience. Still, Rapp knows something about how to entertain. Matt and Davis are quick-witted literary types who can debate the relative merits of Raymond Chandler and Henry Miller. Their interplay can be quite funny and even engaging, as it is in perhaps 15 minutes of actual discovery and interest during the first act. But Rapp could use a few lessons from local playwright Brett Neveu on how to make idle conversation dramatic. In this play marked by stasis, Matt is traumatized by rejection but never changes or comes close to investigating his neuroses.

Since the first act ends without really raising the stakes, Rapp is forced into creaky cliches in the second, when he changes the setting to Matt’s cramped East Village apartment and has the terminally ill Christina show up looking for Davis. By this time Matt’s obsession with her borders on psychosis, and much of the act consists of him elaborating on his compulsiveness rather than acting on it. When Davis arrives, he behaves so vilely toward Christina he might as well be twirling a long, waxed moustache. Rapp pounds drama into Red Light Winter with a sledgehammer rather than letting it emerge naturally from a well-constructed story.

About the only surprise in this Steppenwolf Theatre Company world premiere is the nuance of Rapp’s direction. Despite letting his characters prattle on, he coaxes compelling performances from an admirable cast. Christopher Denham as Matt occasionally lays on the geeky self-consciousness a bit thick, but he finds pathos in his character’s struggle to forge emotional connections. Lisa Joyce is exquisitely disengaged, as if Christina’s life had made the effort of meaningful engagement nearly impossible, but also heartbreaking on the brief occasions when she’s desperately needy. As Davis, Gary Wilmes is as mercurial, impulsive, and beguilingly unreadable as he was during his years with the Cook County Theatre Department a decade ago.

Somewhere in the middle of Rapp’s shapeless, plodding second act, Matt says he’s given up on the engineer play and is now working on a script whose plot closely parallels the story in Red Light Winter. It’s not exactly a well-made play, he admits. It’s one of the show’s few moments of truth.

When: Through 6/26: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 and 7 PM

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Merle Reskin Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted

Price: $15

Info: 312-335-1650

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.