“Close Up Space” is a conventional generational play about a rebellious teenager taking revenge on her tyrannical father. Scribe Molly Smith Metzler has given the material an absurdist comic veneer, and helmer Leigh Silverman has shrewdly cast against type, so there’s an edge of irony to the caricatured roles. Curiously, the coup casting of David Hyde Pierce flips the play’s hate message on its back. With the thesp channeling Bob Newhart, nasty dad comes off as long-suffering saint, the hapless victim of his daughter from hell.
Production values are sky-high under Silverman’s slick helming, most visible in Todd Rosenthal’s detailed set of book-lined Tandem House, the elite Manhattan publishing firm where Paul Barrow (Pierce) prints literary books the old-fashioned way — through brilliant if ruthless editing of worthy manuscripts.
Although no alarms are raised about the dire state of private publishing houses in a digital age, there are clear signs that Paul’s elegant little empire is on the skids. The autocratic publisher has been losing his best authors and if it weren’t for the “soul-deadening emotional schlock” churned out by his vulgarian bestselling novelist Vanessa Finn Adams (a flashy tramp turn from Rosie Perez, whose comic timing is impeccable), the company would probably go belly up.
The deeper problems at Tandem are more personal than professional. Despondent after the death of his beloved wife, Paul has withdrawn from what passes for life in his cutthroat profession. He’s alienated from his authors; can’t control his eccentric office manager, Steve (an incredibly annoying character redeemed only by Michael Chernus’ impish comic perf); and maintains “a profoundly inarticulate silence” with his uncontrollable 18-year-old daughter, Harper (the charmless Colby Minifie), who has just been kicked out of yet another prep school for the incorrigible offspring of emotionally remote parents.
The dramatic action, such as it is, involves Harper’s angry and progressively violent efforts to break through her father’s wall of silence. This she does by storming into the publishing house spouting Russian, trashing his office, stealing the only manuscript of Vanessa’s new book and pretty much destroying his business.
Smith Metzler seems to want us to sympathize with Harper and recoil in horror at Paul’s supposed indifference to her existential pain. But despite her prodigious intelligence, Harper is such a monster that it’s much easier to empathize with the parent she’s hellbent on destroying. And while Hyde Pierce doesn’t gloss over Paul’s inept parenting skills, he hardly fits the scribe’s notion of the character as a vain, proud man and a cruelly uncaring father. There’s something so sympathetic, in fact, about the thesp’s wry portrayal that the hapless Paul comes to resemble Bob Newhart in his finest hour — an intelligent and sensitive man forced to suffer fools and idiots with patience and grace.