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What’s likely to sell tickets to Studio Theatre’s Red Light Winter is the nudity (extensive, full-frontal, involving trim young bodies) and the sex (brief, feverish, variously unsatisfying for the participants), but what’ll hold your attention in performance is the nerve-jangling awkwardness of passions unrequited.

Adam Rapp’s engagingly convulsive drama begins with a comically inept suicide attempt and evolves into a bleak if frequently laugh-provoking chronicle of romantic yearning. The would-be suicide is Matt (Jason Fleitz), a nerdy young writer intent on departing this world before his overbearing buddy, Davis (William Peden), can requisition a hooker from the red-light district outside their Amsterdam hotel to cheer him up.

Longtime college pals, these two are hurtling into their 30s at wildly different velocities. Glib, annoying Davis has channeled the cockiness that buoyed him as a college stud into a career as a hotshot literary editor (he’s riding high after rescuing a bestseller from the slush pile), while chronically insecure Matt is penning plays about train wrecks and watching his career go off the rails. Their relationship—Davis is a domineering creep, Matt a seemingly willing victim—is already toxic, and the arrival in their room of bought-and-paid-for Christina (Regina Aquino) only exacerbates the tensions between them. A roll in the hay (or four) later, and Matt is falling as hard for Christina as Christina is for Davis—and therein hangs a neatly twinned tale of erotic fixation.

The play, actually, is rife with doubles—entendres, crosses, takes, seductions—and in its second act, it doubles back on itself to replay the Amsterdam-hotel events, with variations, in the Manhattan garret where Matt is (not coincidentally) writing a play about two friends and a beautiful girl who comes into their lives. Each of these locations has a bathroom down the hall and a bar or coffee shop down the street, so that when necessary, one of the three can disappear without calling undue attention to him- or herself. All of which is contrivance, obviously, and would prove really annoying if the central character weren’t so richly observed and the dialogue didn’t crack so ferociously wise.

The rap on Rapp, one of the more prolific young artists working in various mediums at the moment—he’s written novels, plays, and screenplays, directed the likes of Will Ferrell and Ed Harris in Hollywood films, been nominated for a Pulitzer, and in his spare time co-founded a “psychedelic, postrock, clumsy folk” band—is that he writes alienation as well as anyone this side of Neil LaBute but needs to concentrate more on plot. Here, he’s apparently taken that criticism to heart and penned a tidy little play about a decidedly untidy romantic triangle, nailing one character and brushing in the other two.

The one he’s nailed, perhaps naturally, is the emergent playwright, who comes across as an endearingly ineffectual bundle of anxieties and random articulateness. Ask Matt to compare the writing styles of Raymond Carver and Henry Miller and he’ll breathlessly spew Shavian lit-crit paragraphs. Insult him, and he’ll invent invective to uncurl your short hairs. But let a beautiful woman cross his path, particularly one who’s not shy about unveiling her breasts, and he’s as dry-mouthed as any adolescent. Fleitz plays Matt as a stammering, doe-eyed manchild who’s really comfortable only when he’s solitary and beavering away at his laptop. He lives in bohemian squalor (persuasively rendered by designer Debra Booth), a lonely, asocial guy convinced he can keep himself and his apartment presentable with judicious applications of scented sprays. In his naiveté, he’s at once hugely appealing and self-evidently lost.

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Peden’s Davis, on the other hand, is the sort of horse’s ass most people would cross half a city to avoid. Aggressive, self-absorbed, casually cruel, and apparently on some level seductive (though the actor has to take a flying leap at that last quality because the author hasn’t dramatized it), he’s quick with a quip and even quicker with a betrayal. If Matt’s a basket case, Davis is largely to blame, for reasons I should let you discover for yourself. Suffice it to say that when Matt describes him as a “dickish macho liar,” he’s seriously understating.

Which leaves Christina—who finds herself inexplicably caught between them—in an awkward spot, dramaturgically. A wittily self-possessed call girl and chanteuse (she dons a crimson evening gown to sing an a capella torch song that more or less brings the house down), she allows an unexpectedly earth-rattling orgasm or two—well, three, actually—to turn her into a lovesick schoolgirl with a crush on the wrongest guy in the world. I don’t know if I can buy that as a plot point, but Aquino makes the emotions real enough, eyes widening, chin quivering, mouth opening in a silent cry as life deals her blow after blow.

Joy Zinoman’s staging mines every emotional vein the material has, as well as a few that aren’t made explicit in dialogue that natters on about Aristotelean poetics when what’s really on the characters’ minds is romance. With her performers, the director has invented some smart character-defining business—those bits with the aerosol sprays, for instance—to pass the time as the author builds to a conclusion a good deal grimmer than most patrons will be expecting at intermission. As all the doubling back suggests, the evening isn’t ultimately going anywhere terribly crucial—characters don’t grow, though situations change—but it goes there stylishly and with some of the sharpest performances in town.

I say “some of” because the absolute sharpest—as in razor’s-edge-skating—performance I’ve seen recently is the one Maura McGinn is giving in the first half of Spinning Into Butter. Rebecca Gilman’s provocative riff on race in academia falters a bit after intermission, laying out its arguments with such clarity and precision that the lifelike messiness that makes the first half so intriguing is all but squeezed out of the play. But in that first half, McGinn is attractive, forthright, and utterly persuasive as Dean Sarah Daniels, an idealistic, well-intentioned white administrator who mucks things up at every turn as she tries to do right by two minority students.

One of those students is African-American and has been receiving hate mail, the other is Nuyorican and is applying for a scholarship, and as Dean Daniels does her practiced, intelligent best to help them negotiate their separate ways through a conservative academic landscape, that landscape morphs into a minefield. And to her horror, it does so for reasons largely attributable to her well-meaning interventions.

“Lately,” she says to a colleague, “I look around here, and I feel I’m not living up to the architecture.” And in a sense, that is the problem. The school is one of those white-by-tradition New England institutions where the last few decades have been all about learning how not to give politically incorrect offense. At least not deliberately.

But the institution is, as institutions often are, passively insensitive to persons of color, and Dean Daniels has been hired as a sort of liaison between the hallowed halls and the minority students who pass through them. She seems, at first, well-suited to the job. Not ideal, mind you. She has a habit of idealizing her brighter charges—“to idealize is to mark as different,” she will note later, “not to respect.” Still, she’s good at deconstructing knee-jerk “I am not a racist” rhetoric and at finding ways to subvert the illiberal tendencies of mainstream culture. When her colleagues rush to respond to the hate mail incident with a campuswide forum on racism, she’s alone in suggesting it might be useful to talk to the student involved before proceeding.

That she examines her own reactions as ruthlessly as she does those of others is the crux of the play, and alas, the easygoing naturalness of McGinn’s performance doesn’t really prepare you for the dark night of the soul the author has in store for her. A blistering, self-lacerating Act Two monologue feels overstated in Jeffrey Keenan’s otherwise nuanced Journeymen Theater staging—too on-the-money and too unhesitatingly delivered to come across as authentic. The playwright has been more persuasive when coming at racial issues obliquely, perhaps because that’s the approach contemporary society routinely takes.

Directness, oddly, makes you conscious of the playwriting craft being brought to bear elsewhere in the play—professorial pedantry butting up a tad too neatly against custodial wisdom and front-office smoothness. The cast is strong—Deborah Kirby’s no-nonsense administrator is a particular standout—but they can’t keep their characters’ positions from feeling schematic as the play wraps up. Which is not to say the evening comes apart; only that its carefully wrought moral complexity is no match for the messy reality of life.CP