After last autumn’s three-way rep season of European classics (term used advisedly in the case of Goethe’s dry and wordy take on Euripides’ Iphigenia), Ustinov Artistic Director Laurence Boswell has come over all transatlantic and contemporary for his second season in the Theatre Royal’s 100-odd seat studio. And so this time we’re getting a trio of recent-ish American plays. Howard Korder’s In a Garden and Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play are on the horizon, but for now we have Adam Rapp’s 2005 OBIE-winning and Pulitzer-nominated drama.
Somewhat inappropriately, given the script’s concern with sexual exploitation, the theatre is waving a red rag to the prurient by billing Red Light Winter as “one of the most sexually explicit plays to have appeared on stage at the Theatre Royal Bath”, but while there’s undoubtedly more nudity, swearing and shagging than has been seen at the place for some time, it’s also true that the real shocks in Rapp’s play have more to do with self-inflicted psychological violence than they do with actors getting their kit off.
Matt and Davis are ex-room mates from college: the former’s a playwright of sorts, an East Village-dwelling neurotic with an inexplicable tendency to burst into tears; the latter’s a cocksure alpha male who’s prone to overly convoluted puns and whose career in publishing’s just gone through the roof thanks to a chance discovery from the ‘slush pile’. Now in their early thirties they take a trip to Europe where, in Amsterdam, Davis suddenly reappears in their crappy hotel room with Christina, a surprisingly accommodating prostitute/cabaret singer he’s found whilst window-shopping in the red-light district. She seems to be French and entirely taken in by Davis’ chutzpah.
Since this is a play which relies on a series of more-or-less successful reveals, to say much else about what unfolds would be to give the game away. Suffice it to say that what happens between these three variously damaged folk in Amsterdam comes back to bite each of them in the arse a year later when Matt and Davis are safely returned to New York – and that, having set up a load of possibilities, the script doesn’t plump for the expectedly unexpected so much as the opposite.
As a play, it gives the impression of being good, strong, sturdy stuff – an impression that’s strengthened by near faultless performances from Ilan Goodman, Keir Charles and Sally Tatum in three difficult, inconsistent, shape-changing roles. Goodman’s Matt behaves exactly like someone you could put in a glass case in a museum marked ‘neurotic creative’ (imagine Woody Allen in an indie-rock T-shirt) while Charles’ Davis manifests the perfect arrogance of the self-righteous generation of neo-con Americans that about three-quarters of the world’s population want to be or to kill, and Tatum’s rootless reinventions of herself under ever- more-ominous shadows are heart-breaking in their desperation.
Where Red Light Winter doesn’t nail it is in exploring why each of these characters are behaving – and, more pertinently, lying – in the way that they do. Why is Matt so neurotic about sex that he dry-heaves when he thinks about it? Why is Davis such a bumptious twat? Why does Christina seem to think these two bozos offer a way out of her commodified life? The scattershot dialogue and linguistic pyrotechnics provide ample distractions from these questions while the play is up and running, but afterwards it’s difficult not to wonder whether what you’ve just seen isn’t just some kind of smartarse postmodern reworking of Pinter’s The Caretaker (there’s a cocky one, a mentally disturbed one and an incoming outsider – never mind the Davis/Davies overlap or sets scattered with junk), with the added extra of some Shopping and Fucking-style anal sex thrown in at the end to guarantee the bourgeois-baiting ‘shock’ factor.
All told, in fact, it’s hard to see how Rapp’s shallow portrayal of shallowness got anywhere near the Pulitzer (it ain’t, after all, To Kill a Mockingbird) or why the Ustinov has dedicated a month of its precious run-time to a play which, despite its admirably high production values and the undoubted commitment of the cast, doesn’t really add up. As it stands, it’s a triumph of style over content. Or maybe that’s the (rather too obvious) point.