Midway through the second act of Adam Rapp's brutal and at times brutally hilarious Red Light Winter, Matt, a struggling playwright whom we meet in the middle of a failed suicide attempt, describes the problem of his latest writing effort, a mousetrap of a play that, like Red Light Winter, is about a pair of friends who travel to Amsterdam and wind up sleeping with the same prostitute. Matt's fictive stand-in, "the quiet, nerdy one," falls for the girl. But she is smitten by his "dickish, macho" friend, who couldn't care less about her.
"I can't figure out the final movement," Matt tells Christina, the prostitute he falls in love with after their for-profit assignation. "The hypotenuse of the love triangle never quite gets completed."
Played with convincing physical awkwardness by Austin Pierce in Hot City Theatre's absorbing rendition of this Pulitzer finalist, Matt is an omega male if ever there was one. He is uncomfortable in his own skin. He not only struggles as a playwright, but he's also unlucky in love — still devastated some three years after his girlfriend dumped him. Making matters worse, his friendship with Davis, a cruel and cocky Reginald Pierre, consists of little more than adolescent games of one-upmanship and wrestling matches that inevitably end with Matt pinned to the floor. Not only have both men outgrown the friendship — Davis becoming a fast-track editor while Matt muddles along as an ever-"emerging" playwright — but Davis is now engaged to Matt's ex-girlfriend, who left Matt for his more confident friend.
Now in their early thirties, this pair has made the improbable decision to re-live their undergraduate days with a trip to Amsterdam. Davis can slake his guilt. Meanwhile, Matt can get some work done, break his romantic dry spell and the two can let it rip eating space cakes, smoking hashish and bedding whores. But when Davis arrives back at their hostel with the gift of Christina (Maggie Conroy), a French prostitute whose wares he has already sampled, Matt nearly breaks out in hives, racing to hide the embarrassment that is his life — the dirty underwear, the spent towels, the belt he used in the failed suicide attempt.
"She's fucking solid, bro," Davis assures his friend, who soon finds in Christina a new conduit for his romantic misery. "I mean, I didn't see fireworks or anything, but she's legit."
But Christina isn't legit. Though Conroy initially imbues her with a sultry and clichéd sensuality of the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold variety, this hackneyed façade is stripped away by the second act. Back in New York, Conroy reveals Christina's true (if somewhat implausible) character to be as fragile as Matt's and just as doomed — desperate for an authentic human connection with Davis, numb to the affections of Matt.
As the hypotenuse of this twice-unrequited love triangle, Davis is all withering wit and gratuitous heartlessness. And while Pierre plays the character with rakish confidence, he also comes across as brutish and one-dimensional — particularly in the lead-up to a devastating sex scene. (Frontal nudity? Check.) It's not that Pierre's interpretation isn't credible or entertaining. It is. Rather, there's an emotional depth and nuance that's left unexplored, which makes his continued relationship with Matt hard to fathom. If Davis is really as rapacious as Pierre portrays him — denigrating Matt at every turn, asking Christina if she quit hooking because there was "too much viscosity down low" — why does he, a rising star in the publishing world, still waste his time with a non-starter like Matt? Inertia?
Rapp intended another layer of complexity to the character, having him pretend not to fall for Christina so that he could preserve his friendship with Matt. Of course, the script itself may not support this nuance — after all, Davis is engaged to Matt's ex-girlfriend, and he does say some pretty awful things — but without exploring this wrinkle, director Eric Little and his cast leave us with troubling questions about what it is that binds these characters together.
One question Rapp does answer, and unequivocally, is how Matt should finish his play. "My instincts are to let it sort to fade out," he tells Christina, "like to resist the big clichéd, melodramatic ending."
That's exactly what Rapp does, and as the lights close on this sweltering, perhaps flawed, but deeply affecting production, we are left not with easy answers and resolution, but only the resigned discontent of having witnessed lonely lives still in progress.