No matter what a certain cabal of downtown theatermakers might have us believe, cynicism is not the same as intelligence and degradation is not the same as truth. Yet that argument wriggles through “cagelove,” a smug bit of posturing from actor-turned-playwright Christopher Denham and director Adam Rapp that chokes on facile thinking and assembly-line tropes of the tragically hip.
It’s no surprise that Denham stars in the current Off Broadway production of Rapp’s “Red Light Winter”: His play is cribbed from his mentor’s blueprints. We are treated to the same desperately bohemian twentysomethings that inhabit Rapp’s universe; as usual, they excel at wounding each other, motivated by some combination of masochism and (if they’re men) the fear of emasculation.
Phallic anxiety is the locus for Denham’s plot, in which young couple Sam and Katie (Daniel Eric Gold and Gillian Jacobs) struggle to stay together after Katie is raped by her stalker ex-boyfriend. The inert script’s only major action is Sam’s vain attempt to assert authority over this unseen man either by suing him or raping Katie himself. (Really.)
Even the women’s arcs, for all their trappings of character development, ultimately revolve around Sam’s fragile sexuality. Katie’s actions are motivated by the desire to make him want her, and her sister Ellen (Emily Cass McDonnell) exists to drive a wedge between Sam and his lover.
And in the end — here comes a spoiler — the rapist wins: Represented by a Halloween mask, he lies forever under the couple’s bed. Meanwhile, Sam and Katie sprawl on the floor, heads hung in shame and pants literally around their ankles. We’re shown that sexuality leads to destruction and people hurt each other forever.
Playwrights have the right to their opinions, of course, and we would be missing a sizable chunk of the literary canon if sexual fear and obsession were disallowed as subjects. But “cagelove” has the double audacity both to make a point we’ve heard before — take Rapp’s own “Faster,” staged at Rattlestick in 2002 — and make it without a whit of finesse.
The production is self-consciously unsophisticated. Denham writes like someone so intent on deadening his characters that he will give them only basic sentence structure and vocabulary. His awkward language sounds likes a cheap imitation of disaffected teens, fumbling for both imagery and rhythm.
Furthermore, Rapp’s direction allows the cast to underplay so much that they speak and move like zombies. It’s tempting to blame this woodenness on bad acting, but the script insists their wan presence is the point. Criticizing her sister’s recent efforts at photography, Ellen says, “There’s nothing real in it. In any of it. They’re just these Norman Rockwell safe-zones, and everything’s tidy and everything makes sense.”
In this play, then, phoniness is the fantasy warmth of a Rockwell painting. Honesty comes instead from seeing that life sucks, that pain knows no end. “Real” people are the ones without hope. Like the people in “cagelove.”
Apparently guided by this credo, the creatives pop blood vessels to make sure everything is hollowed out. Hence the pallid acting, monosyllabic language and helmer Rapp’s decision to end most scenes with a slow blackout while thesps stare silently into space, often listening to the sound of ominous breathing on an answering machine.
By exalting this despondent sensibility for 85 minutes, Denham and Rapp stage a world that’s just as superficial as the one Rockwell is accused of creating. Insisting that everything’s wrong is as unsophisticated as insisting that everything’s right.
The more difficult task is in perceiving how hope and despair interact, one never quite obliterating the other. That uneasy co-existence ignites even mordant works such as “No Exit” or “Endgame,” allowing those plays to explore something larger than the jejune assertion that living equals defeat. “Cagelove” lacks such balance, and so it succumbs to blindness.