The actor-playwright Christopher Denham is currently appearing as the writer-hero of Adam Rapp’s Red Light Winter. Now Rapp, who also staged Red Light Winter, has directed cagelove, a play by Denham, and the resemblance between the two works is so close that it’s hard to tell whether we have here two artists bonded by their similar outlooks or a visionary and his disciple.
Both writers are essentially romantics, aggressively delving into the bleak and the sordid as a way to ward off their own sentimental impulses. Like Rapp’s play, Denham’s deals with a woman sexually involved with two men, one of whom is a destructive figure. Rapp puts this character onstage and tries to humanize him somewhat, showing the tension underlying the two male characters’ friendship as a partial cause of the hostile one’s destructive behavior. In Denham’s more crudely melodramatic version, the destroyer is an unseen monster, the heroine’s pathologically violent and possessive ex-boyfriend, who is also described as supermodel-handsome and a successful artist. Against this mythic hand-me-down from stalker-genre scare flicks, Denham posits an interestingly troubled heroine (Gillian Jacobs), herself a successful photographer, who has escaped from the abusive relationship into the arms of a tender but spineless corporate drudge (Daniel Eric Gold), against whose quiet protectiveness she constantly rebels.
When the heroine claims to have been raped by her ex, her current relationship begins to crumble, abetted by the innocent-seeming interference of her estranged sister (Emily Cass McDonnell). As in Red Light Winter, the scenes are prolonged by mysterious pauses and passages of inarticulate, noncommittal dialogue; the characters bristle with unspoken agendas that are all too obvious; and people about whom we know little begin to reveal improbably dark inner impulses. As in Rapp’s more convincingly realized play, the characters seem unaware that anyone has ever had problems like theirs before and invariably choose the worst possible solutions. In Rapp’s play the factitiousness lies deep, under layers of emotional reality. Denham, though he makes a skillful try, abetted by another of Rapp’s seamlessly detailed productions, never carries the same weight of truth. The three actors do what they can to forestall this, Gold and Jacobs coming off with success despite the naked improbabilities of the story; McDonnell, playing her character in a whiny singsong, has less happy results.
But what’s most interesting is the unspoken feeling both playwrights share, one that has less to do with the events in their plays than with the larger world they evoke. The French, at the similarly disorienting turn of a century 200 years ago, called this spiritual dislocation mal de siécle, “century sickness,” the feeling that an age has passed: Everything it stood for has become meaningless, all its illusions are destroyed, and the world is commencing a new, less certain age. The heroes who epitomized this dislocated feeling in early 19th-century drama, like the unhappy heroes of Rapp’s and Denham’s plays, are faintly clueless, indecisive, sensitive souls driven into impossible situations by idealistic misunderstandings that they mistake for love, against the background of a society gone absurd. Whether we like or dislike the kind of playwriting Rapp and company stand for, we have to admit that our absurd world justifies it. What came along when mal de siécle had waned were the more assertive, heroic Romanticism embodied in France by Victor Hugo and Dumas pére, and the more clinically comic depiction of society embodied in the Anglo-Irish “realist” line of Robertson, Gilbert, Wilde, and Shaw. We’ve now caught the century sickness, in all its cankered, moonlit pathos. Watch, my friends, while the pendulum swings back toward a possible cure.