Red Light Winter | HotCity Theatre

redlightwinter 75This is a doomed love story with comedy, or maybe a comedy with doomed love, or maybe a tragedy with some jokes.


Thirty-year-old Matt (Austin Pierce) and his erstwhile college roommate, Davis (Reginald Pierre), are visiting Amsterdam in the middle of winter to partake in the sensory pleasures of its notorious red light district. They’re staying in a shabby youth hostel where aspiring writer Matt holes up to work on his play while Davis does the town. They might just seem like another pair of superannuated adolescents on a continual high, except we realize immediately that isn’t true, because the first action we see when we meet Matt is him trying to hang himself with his belt. He can’t get it to work, of course, or the play would be way shorter than its inflated running time (nearly 2 hours, 40 minutes). He is interrupted by the arrival of Davis with a beautiful Frenchwoman in tow, whose services he has procured for the lonely Matt. This is the set-up for Red Light Winter currently playing at HotCity Theatre.

Davis might be feeling a little guilty about his old buddy, as one of the reasons Matt is so down is because his two-and-a-half-year relationship with his girlfriend, Sarah, failed when she fell in love with Davis, and they’re now engaged. It could be taken as a sign of his passivity that Matt is still willing to be best friends with the guy who screwed him over. To add to the pain, Davis lucked into an editing job and is now fast-tracking it to have his own imprint by the time he’s 35, according to what Matt tells Christina (Maggie Conroy), the hooker.

Another way that Davis shows his “consideration” is to have tried out the merchandise before he brought it home; in fact, he and Christina, who is what is called a “window shopper,” had a rather long sexual encounter at her workspace. In the District, these women are displayed in windows opening on the street, and when a “client” visits, the curtains are pulled; there is a bed and even a cassette player for atmosphere. Actually, Davis is a total son of a bitch, which he will prove more times than we, Matt, or Christina need him to, but there it is.

Matt is gobsmacked by the woman and behaves predictably awkwardly. He seems to come to life when he describes to her the plot of his play in progress, Speckled Birds. A tragedy about the death of most of the members of a young family, it reflects its writer’s state of mind. Christina moves around the space, casually changing clothes, first into a t-shirt, and then she excuses herself to re-enter in a stunning red gown. She claims to be a cabaret performer, and the song she sings to them projects both her sadness and her talent, because it is quite Red-Light-Winter

After Davis leaves to give them space, an action Christina doesn’t seem happy about, Matt figures out some things about her that come as a surprise because he truly paid attention to what she sang, and how. They do end up in bed, and after Matt goes to sleep, Christina steps out, leaving him the cassette player. The haunting music of Tom Waits is a motif throughout the piece; in fact, one of the first things Davis tells Matt about his “visit” with Christina was what Waits song was playing. She also leaves the red dress, which will become a kind of fetish later.

In Act II, it is a year later and we meet Matt back in his dingy loft, pecking away at the computer. He is surrounded by wadded-up paper, but that bit of scenery would be more effective if there were any sign of a printer. There is a knock at the door, and Matt exchanges some remarks with the woman outside before he opens it to find Christina standing there. She’s looking for Davis, who gave her Matt’s address back in Amsterdam when she asked for Davis’s own on the pretext of sending him some of her music. Matt is shocked to see her, and she is surprised also, not just because he’s not Davis, but because she doesn’t remember him at all. To go any further with the plot would be to give too much away, but suffice to say she comes bearing startling news, which will have an impact on all three of them. It is here that the play begins to reveal its self-referential layers.

Playwright Adam Rapp said in an interview that his brother (actor Anthony Rapp) once asked him why he didn’t write plays in the vein of Chekhov; after seeing The Seagull, Adam decided he would do just that. This is a doomed love story with comedy, or maybe a comedy with doomed love, or maybe a tragedy with some jokes. Chekhov always said he wrote comedies, but the rest of us aren’t so sure. Rapp also based his play on a trip he and a friend of his took to Amsterdam, so the story has some basis in reality, but presumably Rapp wasn’t suicidal and his friend isn’t a jerk. Davis is so pretentious that he pronounces “euro” with a German accent (sort of), but he also is a book editor who doesn’t know that J.K. Rowling is British. Also, Matt mispronounces Rowling’s name. Finally, one line at the play’s climax is delivered in a way that is dramatic but not believable. Overall, Eric Little (welcome back to St. Louis, sir) has directed these fine actors with great finesse, but sometimes the devil really is in the details.

Alan Chlebowski’s set and lights work well. The room is all angles and jagged edges cut off at the top. In fact, Pierre is taller than the door, but Pierce is not, and that makes a statement of its own. But the space can represent Matt’s state of mind, as well. Red lights are employed generously in Amsterdam, but most of the second act in New York is styled in cool blue with some golden overtones. Emily Montgomery’s costumes help illuminate the characters, also. The audience is set rather far back from the playing space, which is probably more comfortable for everyone since the material is fairly graphic, but the language is the spiciest part. This show is for mature audiences.

Pierce and Conroy are excellent, especially considering that, much of the time, the script makes Christina more of a device than a fully formed character. Conroy’s eyes carry the day. It’s such a cliché to say that you can feel the characters’ pain, but with these two, you really can. Pierre displays the right attitude as Davis, but he didn’t seem as invested as the other two. I do need to note that I saw a preview, so it’s quite possible that all the actors are going to fully inhabit their roles when they’re more accustomed to an audience.

Now, about the length: It is too long. Still, I was interested throughout, and that’s quite an accomplishment, even though some cutting seems in order for maximum impact. Still, I’d call Red Light Winter another win for the always intriguing HotCity Theatre. There’s a lot out there to see right now, but I don’t think you’ll regret taking the time for this one. | Andrea Braun

Red Light Winter originated at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 2006. It runs at HotCity Theatre through March 29, 2014. You may visit for more information.

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