February 28, 2012

Boy Meets Chaos: Red Light Winter at the Kitchen Theatre

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Frequently, “boy meets girl” is a tired rather than innovative premise. From Romeo and Juliet to Twilight, it’s a theme viewers have seen a million times. However, when the boy is a struggling playwright battling depression, the girl is a mysterious European prostitute and they meet in Amsterdam through an arrogant friend (or perhaps frenemy) of the boy’s, the setup rapidly escalates from stale to scintillating. Currently playing at the Kitchen Theatre, Adam Rapp’s Red Light Winter is a staggering study of youthful desperation and the pain of unreciprocated attraction. Despite a few technical shortcomings and occasional over-acting, the Kitchen’s interpretation is ultimately an extraordinary display of first-class theatre.

Last seen at the Kitchen in June, Eric Gilde triumphantly returns as Matt, a 30-year-old writer still trying to shake awkward adolescent anxiety. Painfully intelligent and seemingly incapable of standing still, Gilde plays Matt as an earnest but timid nerd desperate to impress the beautiful French girl his friend Davis brings him. Ranting about prominent figures from Henry Miller to Jean-Luc Godard to Tom Waits, Gilde’s Matt is a post-college intellectual on the brink — though whether that brink will bring success or devastation is up for debate for the majority of the play. Gilde’s performance culminates in Matt’s stunning Act Two monologue, a frank and anguished confession that leaves him — and the audience — breathless.

Davis, played by a blustering Jesse Bush, is Matt’s polar opposite. Swaggering, overconfident and hyper-critical of Matt, Bush’s Davis embodies the archetypal obnoxious American tourist. Though convincing in his arrogance, Bush’s Davis is sometimes annoying to the point of being intolerable. Repeatedly dismissing Matt’s work and ridiculing his personality, Davis is devoid of charm and often unbearable. As he pans his friend’s career and inflates his ego, the audience can hardly endure him. Why then, we are forced to ask, are Matt and Christina so taken with him? The final and most surprising of the characters is the Christina, the French prostitute played by Ellen Adair. From her start as an overtly sexual and exotic woman to her heartbreaking, vulnerable end, Adair absolutely shines.  Captivating from start to finish, Adair’s Christina defies all expectations.

Red Light Winter takes place in two cramped apartments — the first a temporary arrangement in Amsterdam, the other Matt’s tiny East Village studio. This claustrophobic setting is marvelously reflective of Matt’s post-college life. While these grand cultural centers bustle outside, he cloisters himself indoors, wallowing in the savage reality of solitude. The two apartments feature superb set design by Kent Goetz that perfectly caters to the Kitchen’s black box theatre. Unfortunately, not every technical aspect was this on point. The Kitchen again proved unable to properly incorporate sound effects. While the jumble of honks and revving engines that open the play effectively establish the setting, their inexplicable return during quiet moments in the middle of the play served as distractions rather than enhancements.

These technical shortcomings, however, barely impede the show. In two beautifully structured acts, Rapp provides a portrait of young intellectual America in a moment of crisis — and the Kitchen’s production absolutely lives up to the writing. From the very start, Red Light Winter captures the audience, and doesn’t let us go until its final dramatic conclusion. ­­

Original Author: Gina Cargas

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