ARTS

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June 3, 2005

Red Light Winter illuminates ill-fated ménage à trois

Don't attend Red Light Winter for the sex, because it's not very good. Even when 30-second man, Matt (played by Christopher Denham) spruces up the sex in a retrospective recollection of passionate yet ephemeral events, the audience knows that he's either kidding himself or that the hedonistic euphoria that has dominated his life is due only to inherent selfishness. It's clear that his lover, Christina (Lisa Joyce), doesn't share Matt's feelings.

Granted, one can't necessarily expect unrequited love from a two-bit whore picked up off the streets of Amsterdam on a cold winter's eve. And we'll conveniently disregard the fact that Matt has refrained from—or, more correctly, failed at—allowing his sexual frustration to find an appropriate outlet for quite a good long time. So we'll just have to characterize poor Matt as a man who is smitten with a gorgeous prostitute, who his traveling buddy Davis (Gary Wilmes) asks up to their Amsterdam hostel to provide relief to Matt's pent-up sexual frustrations.

Matt is, quite incidentally, on the verge of hanging himself as the play commences. Relax, the story's not that sinister. Playwright Adam Rapp does a good job of incorporating comedy into even the darkest of scenes, as Matt's attempts at suicide are foiled by the combination of a loose coat hook and a metal-studded belt. Needless to say, the comedy-as-cathartic release gimmick is indicative of the play's underlying themes. But I digress.

Matt and Davis's relationship verges on joviality and understanding for a brief span during the first act, but we soon realize, as the Act I Amsterdam scene switches to the Act II East Village scene, that the "understanding" alludes only to Matt's "understanding" of Davis's bad intentions and worse soul, and Davis's "understanding" of Matt's gullibility and shaky psychology. The dialogue is thus quite funny, laced with incisive social commentary, resembling a spiced-up TV sitcom in its speed and vivacity. Although it doesn't reach into the incomprehensible stratosphere of comedian Dennis Miller, it does move at a fast clip with a vernacular that would have even the most diligent of SAT-savvy overachievers straining to keep up with the pace. Lots of modern literary and theater references are peppered among the mutually disparaging living room banter.

We soon learn that Davis and Matt's relationship is less cordial than we initially thought. With the addition of Christina, the trio constitutes three similarly afflicted characters: one (Matt) smitten with unattainable beauty, another (Davis) smitten with himself, and the third (prostitute Christina) smitten with the myriad open possibilities of life. Over-exuberance and naïveté become the downfall of the first individual; arrogance the downfall of the second; and a lascivious nod in the direction of indulgence the fatal downfall of the third. By the end of the play, it can be reasonably inferred that all three characters, by appropriately disparate means, will be dead within a few years.

In between this joyful malaise comes the issue of Davis's relationship to Matt, which regresses from decent to bad to downright unfriendly in a matter of months, without a believable explanation. It should have been either strained or nonexistent from the very beginning of the play.

We recognize Davis's shady side in his dealings with the prostitute (reminding us why uncontrollably horny 20-somethings should never get married). But the downright evil side displayed in Act II suffers from a severe sense of disconnection from Act I, almost to the point of disbelief. Additionally, Matt's insistence at maintaining a somewhat friendly relationship with Davis seems to underscore a gullibility that extends beyond the boundaries of believability. Playwright Rapp generally walks that fine line between exaggeration and realistic description quite well, but this reviewer had trouble believing that Matt—a professed hermit, recluse, and loner—has such a desperate need of friends that he continues to stay in touch with an absolutely reprehensible character.

Red Light Winter is performed at the Steppenwolf Garage Theater at 1650 North Halsted Street in Chicago. Tickets are $15. The play will run through June 26.