I’m sad, but not from Seasonal Affective Disorder. The fall season ended with Manhattan Theatre Club’s opening Molly Smith Metzler’s Close Up Space (City Center Stage I), a work neatly encapsulating everything new plays do that has been making me sad for months. I bear Metzler no ill will. As with too many other recent plays, hers has some distinct virtues, but its faults outnumber them so heavily as to make theatergoing burdensome: Instead of engaging creatively with the event onstage, you expend all your energy looking for little things within it to like in compensation for its generally dismaying nature.
I can’t blame Metzler for repeating the pattern. Like all playwrights, she wants to get produced. Naturally, she has turned out the sort of play our would-be serious theaters increasingly tend to produce. They, too, strive to imitate previous successes; everybody’s following the Ruhls. The result, in Close Up Space, is a viscous mixture of sitcom and after-school special. It opens with patent absurdity, in an ostensibly naturalistic context, and ends in a glop of would-be tragic ironies. Reality, heightened or everyday, is the one thing it virtually never touches.
Metzler’s story tracks the overnight downfall of an eminent book editor, Paul (David Hyde Pierce), forced to contend with the rebellion of his firm’s best-selling novelist, Vanessa (Rosie Perez), against his sweeping emendations on her latest manuscript, and simultaneously fend off his violently hostile teenage daughter, Harper (Colby Minifie), just escaped from the expensive boarding school he pays to hold her captive. The well-meaning interference of Paul’s office manager, Steve (Michael Chernus), a jargon-spouting New Ager with his own fuzzy agenda, only makes matters worse.
Neglected adolescent daughter, preoccupied unloving father—we’ve been here before. Even the pretentious literary dress-up—Harper identifies with the Stalin-era poet Anna Akhmatova, quoting her lengthily in Russian—rings familiar bells. The various contemporary jargons the characters spout, often amusing in themselves, grate against the overfamiliar substance. It’s hard to care, despite director Leigh Silverman’s efforts to anchor the script’s self-conscious posturing. The actors struggle. Chernus, in the most preposterous role, wins a partial victory; Perez, with fiercely concentrated energy, holds firm; Minifie we’ll hopefully see in a less stunty role sometime. Pierce, least lucky of the lot, hammers away bravely at a part that locks him into one baseless posture. See Close Up Space, multiply it by 20 or 30, and you’ll know why this season makes me sad.