By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
In the geometry of a love triangle, the three sides are rarely equal. Somebody has to be the hypotenuse, loving the wrong person, giving too much or too little. Red Light Winter, the steamy three-character play by Adam Rapp that just opened a scorching-good production at Addison's Second Thought Theatre, angles acutely toward the woman (played by Natalie Young) in a story of messy romantic configurations. But the relationship that matters is the obtuse one between the men, besties Davis (Alex Organ) and Matt (Drew Wall).
Running buddies since their days as Brown University undergrads, the guys have slammed hard into their 30th year and, in the first of the play's two acts, are winding up a celebratory wintertime crawl through louche Parisian bars and Dutch brothels. Davis, a hotshot Manhattan book editor, is financing the trip with the proceeds of his first slush-pile bestseller. Matt's merely a starving Boho playwright, shivering in Davis' tall shadow and still bruised from the loss of his college girlfriend, now engaged to Davis.
In the first moments of Red Light Winter, Matt slumps alone at the spindly desk in a one-star Amsterdam hotel room, typing on his MacBook. He looks sickly and miserable. When he loops a belt around his neck and tries, unsuccessfully, to hang himself from a coat hook, it's such a loser move we know he'll be our underdog whatever happens next.
What happens is the noisy entrance of handsome alpha-male Davis, bursting in high and drunk after a night among the whores of Amsterdam's famous red light district "windows." He's found a pretty one, a French prostitute named Christina (Young), and, having sampled her wares, brought her back for Matt to sample. "She's fuckin' solid, bro," Davis says by way of performance review.
Eyes dusted heavily kohl-black, Christina lounges catlike on one of the room's two slim beds as Davis performs a witty but mean introduction of his friend. "Matt's been emerging for so long methinks he's setting some sort of record," Davis says. "He's like the Olympic gold medalist for emerging playwrights."
For their own benefit more than the girl's—it's not clear how much English she even understands (until later)—the guys joust with words. Rapp's dialogue is scathing in this sequence, loaded with literary blowhardiness as the men argue the merits of Henry Miller and Raymond Carver. (Rapp can also be twee: "Rome wasn't built in a day care center," Davis says.)
The focus shifts toward Christina when she returns from the bathroom zipped into a tight red dress. She sings a bluesy, whispery tune she's written about unrequited love, melting Matt's nervous reserve and inspiring Davis to offer, disingenuously, to hook her up with a recording contract if she's ever in New York. Davis departs, leaving the prepaid ho for his bro.
The seduction that follows includes two elements live theater usually shies away from: full male and female nudity, and realistic-looking sex. Director Regan Adair choreographs actors Wall and Young with great care here, allowing long stretches of silence and keeping a natural awkwardness as the sexual encounter between strangers unfolds. In the intimate confines of the Studio Theatre, arranged with the narrow acting space stretched between two facing audience sections, we become voyeurs. If we look away from the smooth, pale flesh of the actors as they explore each other's bodies, we are forced to see only each other.
But you won't want to look away. The connection between Drew Wall, one of Dallas' most intense young actors, and lovely Natalie Young, who's matured since her turns in two previous Second Thought shows, has heat. And not just with the sexy stuff. As Wall's character Matt discovers one of prostitute Christina's secrets—she's not what she pretends to be—you feel him falling in love and fear for his already wounded soul. She softens, dropping the hooker persona as he opens up about his quirks. He's suicidal, sure, but also addicted to Robitussin and online bridge.
The overly contrived second half of Rapp's play is less convincing, but Second Thought's actors never falter. Back in New York in Matt's squalid one-room studio (Adair also designed set and costumes), he's still pining for Christina when she suddenly arrives at his door, looking less glam than in Amsterdam. Seems the contact address Davis gave her was actually his pal's—yet another cruel trick. Matt pours out his love for Christina; she confesses something else. And just when you think you couldn't hate the cad Davis more, he appears and commits a violent act that will result in tragedy for all three of them. We don't see that part of the scenario. Just as hapless Matt can't seem to finish any of his scripts, playwright Rapp leaves Red Light Winter open-ended.
Wall, Young and Organ click wonderfully in this oddly affecting play, giving natural, unhurried performances that reflect an economy of movement Adair is known for as an actor and director. (Adair recently moved to NYC but will return occasionally for jobs like this.) With this production, Second Thought Theatre continues a comeback season of tautly acted and sensitively directed work.