With one foot in the buddy comedy of “Sideways” and another in the macho diabolism of Neil LaBute, Adam Rapp’s riveting “Red Light Winter” oozes sexual intrigue and tension. Far and away the scribe’s most commercial outing, this edgy, nudity-heavy drama continues Rapp’s long-proven ability to articulate characters stuck on society’s margins. But past works like “Blackbird” or “Finer Noble Gases” don’t have anything like this level of narrative sizzle. And, the man has discovered the plot twist: This Rapp-directed Steppenwolf premiere is a Gen X-friendly jaw-dropper.
Except for the need to excise a good 15 minutes from the running time, this uber-realistic affair could and should move to Off Broadway exactly as is. The young cast is top-drawer — and Rapp’s deft helming suggests he should have been directing his plays all along. Other people can upset their delicate balance.
Rapp also shouldn’t have taken so long to discover that plays need involving stories; most of his previous efforts have been languid, endlessly digressive, beautifully written affairs wrapped so tight around character that there was no room left for anything much to happen. But “Red Light Winter” is full of 180-degree turns and sexually charged surprises.
On opening night in the Steppenwolf’s experimental garage space, the audience barely moved a collective muscle for the duration. Since this is a three-character, two-set play with a running time pushing three hours, that’s a crackling achievement.
In summary, “Red Light Winter” sounds like a regular guy-falls-in-love-with-hooker play; indeed, it starts that way. Nerdy Matt (Christopher Denham) and hyperachieving Davis (Gary Wilmes) are an odd couple of old college buddies partying in Amsterdam, partaking in drugs and hookers. At least, that’s what the mercurial Davis, a self-obsessed publishing exec, is doing. Along with keeping his buddy company, Matt’s also trying to kill himself in their sleazy hotel room. But he’s too much of a loser to bring off his hanging.
Then Davis arrives with a gift hooker for pathetic Matt’s pleasure. She takes off her dress. He also gets naked. And that’s when things get really interesting.
The hooker — imbued here with a rich emotional life and played with haunting intensity by newcomer Lisa Joyce — is not what she seems. The pair has long, complicated sex, followed by an inestimably complex relationship that spills into the second act. Therein, a year has passed and we’re in Greenwich Village.
Matt cannot get over the girl, while she’s obsessed with the abusive Davis. Who or what floats Davis’ boat remains one of the play’s more interesting questions.
The core of the conflict, of course, is a warped love triangle. The play deftly evokes those stupid friendships we all maintain with assholes. It’s a clever portrait of sexual obsession that never quite shows its hand.
Rapp is a more emotional and gentler writer than LaBute, which means his characters have a softness that contrasts deliciously with the acidity of the plot.
Making Matt a playwright writing a play about his experience has its indulgent downside, though it does provide the chance for some wryly self-deprecating metatheatrical references. It’s also true that the second act fades slightly from the rigorous boil of the first. One also could make the case that all three of the characters could move just a nudge — and it would take only a nudge — closer to nuanced normality instead of being three deer stuck in the headlights of polarity.
Still, “Red Light Winter” could make a star out of Joyce, and the two Gotham-based dudes are no slouches. For sure, this will be Rapp’s deserved breakthrough play, after his “emerging” all over the place for years.