Red Light Winter undresses a young writer's mind 

Everyone in Red Light Winter, right down to the whore, is big on Tom Waits and the corresponding idea that a fucked-up life is a romantic one. Soaked through with sex and ennui, the play — a dark comedy by Adam Rapp running in the tiny Fishtank studio — revels in grimy bedrooms, unrequited love, and the fantasy of achieving transcendence with a call girl. It's funny, it's occasionally sexy, and it's written and performed with the knockabout verve of rock and roll.

It's also as subtle as a power chord and generally a mess. The playwright himself concedes this halfway through the long, engrossing, progressively unbelievable second act. There, a sensitive young man mopes about how he and a prostitute once forged a true connection, one that was "more than just sex." That's silly enough that I just about gave up on the play until Rapp, who is more clever than sensitive, makes it clear that he, too, thinks such talk is silly. Instead of asking us to find the heart in this sensitive young man's obsession, Rapp lances his pretensions, pushing the play and the audience somewhere stranger and more satisfying.

But first things first. Rapp imagines a pair of Brown College English grads affecting a down-and-out period in Amsterdam. The Fishtank's storefront windows have festive red lighting for the occasion, and its cramped concrete interior doubles marvelously for a Dutch hovel.

Davis, a hot-shit young editor, has brought a red-light district call girl back to the room of Matt, who is not only sensitive but also a playwright. ("He just got an award for being burgeoning or something," Davis says.) Then, in front of their paid-for audience, the boys gush great jags of rich, epigrammatic dialogue, covering all the nonsense that's bickered about in university creative-writing departments: Henry Miller versus Raymond Carver, Small Change versus Bone Machine.

Playing Davis, Jess Akin is adept at the role of the horny, highly literate blowhard. He rants tirelessly about blue balls and bowel troubles, his performance a study of the satisfaction that such cads derive from both their own elegance and their gross-outs.

Eventually, Davis leaves Matt alone with the whore, Christina (Molly Denninghoff). At first, I missed Davis terribly. Monkish Matt, played with prime self-involvement by Erik Graves (Graves and Akin directed), is one of those nice guys who is so proud of his niceness that he actually comes off like a dick. The audience's concern at this point is probably supposed to be whether the shy boy can bring himself to get it on with the hooker, but that's just about the least interesting dramatic question I can imagine — if he wasn't going to, he would have tossed her out long before. While Matt plucks up his gumption and Christina bluntly seduces, there's the threat that this might all turn into the one thing less interesting than a playwright's encounter with a whore: a play about a playwright writing about his encounter with a whore.

It does, of course, in the self-absorbed, snakes-swallowing-their-tails way of a writers workshop. Fortunately, Rapp is burgeoning to pull it off. Every lurch toward the sentimental and the narcissistic is corrected by a clever coinage (Davis vows to subject himself to some "Amsterdamage") and amusing sex talk (doing it in a "three-ply condom" is like "getting a massage in a snowsuit").

After intermission, a year has passed, and Matt now pines for Christina, with whom he shared a single night. He also apologizes to the audience. In a spare East Village studio that's more like the hollow in a cinder block than an honest apartment, Matt describes the struggle of completing a play much like Red Light Winter — a three-character romantic disaster based entirely on the first act that we've just watched.

Matt explains that he can't find an ending, that he keeps adding more confrontations, that his structure is more dreamlike slop than Aristotelian rigorousness (don't worry — I'm not coming close to giving away too much). This speech, well delivered by Graves, is the truest thing in Red Light Winter. It's a cutesy mea culpa, sure, but it's also reason to hope for Rapp's next play. He's smart enough to know what isn't working, but he isn't yet seasoned enough to fix it. He's also gifted enough that I care.

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