Despite my admiration for Adam Rapp’s writing, I’ve stayed away from his plays the last few years—no easy task, given his prolific output—because they were starting to give me the locked-in feeling of a gifted artist endlessly circling round and round the same material, looking for someplace else to go but uncertain what direction to take next. In Rapp’s case, this sense of imprisonment was particularly grueling because of the relentless sordidness in his work: characters always at the bottom of life, actions always the harshest and ugliest. Mixed into my discomfort was a flickering suspicion that only part of the unpleasantness was authentically observed or experienced, while part—maybe even the larger part—was self-conscious, put in not because it was germane to Rapp’s vision but because he thought it would make the play seem more “real.” He wouldn’t be the first or the only working artist to think so: Someday, some social historian or philosopher will trace the way our culture has come to confuse reality with negativity. Meantime, I went to Red Light Winter because accounts I heard of it sounded as though Rapp might have found a way out of the negative trap.
He hasn’t, quite. But he has found ways of putting non-negative human possibilities into the darkness of his action. No new doors have been opened, you might say, but at least the Exit lights have now been switched on. There is a great deal of unhappiness, unpleasantness, and sordidness in Red Light Winter, but it’s about love, which means that there’s also a great deal of hope, aspiration, and dreaming, along with frequent efforts at such unsordid feelings—distrusted by the “reality” peddlers of our time—as tenderness and generosity. The infusion of this broad range of positive emotions into the grim context gives this small-scale play a surprising richness of dialectical body, producing long stretches of Rapp’s best writing to date, sinewy, direct, and dense with the complications innate in human nature.
This broader spectrum of feelings also reveals, awkwardly and appealingly, that Rapp’s a romantic, like many artists who hide their vulnerability under a mask of coarseness. Red Light Winter‘s terse, anecdotal story follows the matrix on which many a sentimental song and tearjerking novel has been built: A loves B, who loves C, who loves nobody, possibly because he’s too busy burying his emotions to notice that he loves A. In Rapp’s version, A is a shambling, not-yet-successful young playwright (Christopher Denham), afflicted with shyness, sleep deprivation problems, and a chronic gift for messing up his life, perfectly illustrated by his devotion to C (Gary Wilmes), a college chum on the fast track to success as a book editor, who has just scored the publishing coup of the year by turning a manuscript from the slush pile into a mega-bestseller and has hauled his pal with him to Amsterdam to celebrate. While he wallows in the Dutch city’s easily accessed supplies of drugs and sex, the playwright mostly lies inert in their room at a student hostel, recuperating from simultaneous attacks of giardia and depression, the latter brought on by a bad breakup a few years back.
His situation, already rocky, gets more so when the hotshot bops back in with a present for his buddy—a “window whore” from the red-light district (Lisa Joyce), who carries with her a messy, complex backstory, the phony part of which the shy playwright (the only one of the three not stoned) is quickly able to see through. What transpires in the encounter comes to a head a year later, in the second act, set in the playwright’s cramped East Village apartment, where the hooker turns up in search of the editor, the editor turns up in search of his mislaid cell phone, and the sequence of rejections and betrayals that James Agee used to describe as “the usual Iscariot marathon” plays itself out, in surprisingly unrecriminative fashion, but with unpleasant results for all concerned.
Part of the irony in Rapp’s new romanticism is the paradox it displays: A master of sophistication where grungy details are concerned, he’s a virtual innocent about dramaturgy. The building of a drug-fueled commercial encounter into misty-eyed devotion is improbable, as is much of the whore’s story (which sounds more like the sort of thing sex professionals—or playwrights—invent than like verifiable fact). Key points in the action hinge, doubtfully, on a fourth character, kept wholly offstage, of whose motives we never get a glimpse. And while it’s easy, maybe far too easy, to read all kinds of explanations into the friendship of editor and writer, the former is depicted by Rapp (who also directed) as such an abusive monster that the idea of anyone’s relationship with him lasting more than five minutes is hard to credit. Still, Rapp gets dramatic mileage out of the character’s crass villainy, fueling the spiky, piquant mixture of sweetness and bleak despair in the two daydreamy lost souls who flank him. And Rapp handles the direction well, getting performances that ring true out of all three actors, with Wilmes doing a particularly admirable job of skating, glossily, over the editor’s thuggishness.