When I was a middle-schooler, my mother accidentally rented “The Blue Lagoon” instead of whatever she intended to get. The result was me sitting on my couch next to my hyper-conservative mother watching Brooke Shields naked for two-and-a-half hours.
When prostitute Christina (Ellen Adair) began taking her clothing off in the Kitchen Theatre Company’s production of Adam Rapp’s Red Light Winter, I fully expected a similarly uncomfortable experience.
Instead, I became engrossed in the scene. No longer in Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre. I was in Amsterdam. A fly on the wall of Matt and Davis’ crummy hotel room, as titillated as they were by the red light district prostitute in their dumpy hotel room.
Red Light Winter tells the story of two 30-year-old former college roomates on a reunion trip: the shy playwright Matt (a delightfully awkward Eric Guilde) and Davis, a successful book publisher played by Jesse Bush, whose square jaw and smug grin fits Davis’s frat boy attitude spot-on. Matt has been unsuccessful in all his endeavors, from his career as a playwright to his attempt to hang himself. The latter is aborted when Davis bursts in the room with Christina, whom he selected out of a window and paid to sleep with Matt in an attempt to rectify the wrong of years past when Davis seduced and married Matt’s former girlfriend, Sarah. Christina fawns over the charming, deceptive Davis, while Matt falls for Christina.
Guilde is a marvel to watch, and makes what could become an annoyingly pathetic character relatable. He paced and stammered, and raked his hand through his hair.
Bush’s characterization of Davis brought a great depth to his despicable nature, letting his actions do the work — he pours ketchup into Matt’s milk carton, wipes his filthy hands onto Matt’s sheets, and inserts or deletes phrases of his choosing in Matt’s manuscript. The relationship between Davis and Matt is the more interesting and complicated part of the play – why are they friends after all that Davis has done to Matt? Who would take a ‘pleasure’ trip to Amsterdam with the abusive, arrogant Davis?
But Rapp casts a brighter spotlight on Christina’s story, as a crooked parallel to Matt’s. Unfortunately I was a little too distracted by the plot holes in Christina’s life to truly buy her as a real character – despite Adair’s stunning portrayal. It’s almost as if he doesn’t have the heart to make the woman his hero, instead choosing a playwright – likely an impression of himself – as Matt falls in love with flawed ingenue.
Yet the play comes off because of the snappy dialogue between the characters. Davis ribs Matt with snarky rappor. And Matt and Christina reveal themselves to one other with the careful wording of a love veteran crossing a heartbreak minefield.
I can’t help but think KTC’s wonderfully designed playhouse aided in creating the illusion of reality. The set design looked remarkably like the room I presently occupy as a graduate student–books stacked in crates and on the floor, clothing perpetually piled next to the bed. The wardrobing could have been better (the red dress was a fright– or perhaps I’m not aware of Amsterdam styles), but I have to admire the details of Matt’s clothing, such as placing a hole in one of his sweaters to demonstrate his poverty.
The small auditorium of Kitchen Theatre created a swelling feelings of intimacy. Additionally, by performing Red Light Winter in the round, the performers could move about more freely on-stage, speaking to one another rather than an auditorium.
Not only would I recommend seeing any play Kitchen Theatre produces, I’d go see Red Light Winter again if I had the chance. I just wouldn’t bring my mother.