Christopher Denham, Gary Wilmes, and Lisa Joycein Red Light Winter
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Christopher Denham, Gary Wilmes, and Lisa Joyce
in Red Light Winter
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
The first act of Adam Rapp's Red Light Winter is utter perfection. Full of humor and insight, it's a captivating portrait of three troubled individuals who find solace -- and perhaps something more -- with one another. Unfortunately, the author/director isn't able to sustain this feeling in the second act. While still worthwhile, the play becomes increasingly melodramatic and the characters' relationships with each other lose some of the complexity that was initially demonstrated.

Matt (Christopher Denham) and Davis (Gary Wilmes) are two friends traveling together in Amsterdam. One night, Davis brings a prostitute named Christina (Lisa Joyce) to the hotel -- but it turns out he has purchased her for Matt, for reasons both of friendship and guilt. To complicate matters, Christina has formed an attachment to Davis based upon their interactions prior to their arrival at the hotel. In the second act, the action shifts to New York City, one year later. Christina has come looking for Davis but finds Matt instead. Since that night in Amsterdam, Matt has been obsessed with Christina. He had previously tried to commit suicide but, he tells her, "After I met you, I felt like I could be in the world again."

Rapp has a keen ear for dialogue, capturing the rhythms and idiosyncrasies of the characters' language. As a director, he's drawn some marvelous performances from the three actors. Most impressive is Denham, whose shoddy work in the 2003 Broadway production of "Master Harold"...and the boys was far inferior to the richly detailed characterization he supplies here. The awkward body language and slightly rushed manner of speaking that he adopts perfectly suit the insecure Matt. A nude scene between him and Joyce is remarkable because of the vulnerability that Denham displays when he's both figuratively and literally naked.

Joyce is a major presence in the show, both mysterious and fragile. As the play progresses, she displays additional characteristics that help to flesh out her character. Prior to Red Light Winter, I'd only seen Wilmes in experimental and stylized productions by artists such as Richard Maxwell; here, he proves that he's equally adept at playing more conventionally written characters. His quirky energy gives his interpretation of Davis a volatile edge. The banter between Matt and Davis is marked by an obvious affection, yet it has a dangerously competitive edge. Unfortunately, the Davis character suffers the most from inferior writing in the second act as he's reduced to a flatly written, stereotypical jerk. There's no sense that he's putting on an act; this appears to be his true personality.

Todd Rosenthal has designed two completely different, naturalistic sets for the two acts of Red Light Winter; both are appropriately claustrophobic and grungy. Michelle Tedsall's costumes tell us a lot about the characters, while Keith Parham's lighting nicely sets the mood at various points in the production -- particularly in the aforementioned nude scene, lit with a dim red wash that accentuates the intimacy of the moment while never letting you forget that it's occurring in the appropriately named red light district of Amsterdam.

The theme of unrequited love that Rapp explores here is not exactly new, but Red Light Winter contains several exquisitely rendered, poignant moments. While the play as a whole is not as strong as it could be, it's still far more meaningful and entertaining than a lot of other shows I've seen this season.