Red Light Winter, on stage at Unit 102 in Toronto, features engaging writing, strong performances
Red Light Winter, a play by Adam Rapp that was shortlisted for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Drama (no prize was awarded that year), gets a powerful, stylish and heartfelt Toronto production at Unit 102, directed by Anne Van Leeuwen. The show features engaging writing and strong, even outstanding performances. It also sometimes mistakes bleakness for depth.
Perpetually “emerging” playwright Matt (Omar Hady) and fast-rising publishing house editor Davis (Luis Fernandes), two 30-year-olds who forged a friendship of diminishing returns at Brown University, are on a trip to Amsterdam. The characters haven’t quite grown up yet, which is magnified by the setting they’re in — the idea that Amsterdam is a place where anything goes and adulthood retreats.
The brash, self-assured Davis is having the time of his life, but the trip does not seem to be having the intended cheering effect on the suicidally-depressed Matt. Davis’ solution to this problem is to hire sex worker Christina, who has her own mystifying backstory. A fractured love triangle ensues, the chase spanning the Atlantic Ocean. The play explodes with the romanticism of unrequited love and the hope that someone else will save your life while exploring the heartbreak of meaning less to someone than they mean to you.
The production keeps the play in 2006. Only ten years old, it feels both current and very slightly dated, with cheap East Village apartments, references to September 11th, and an interesting innocence about its world-weariness. However, the play’s themes of expectation, disappointment, missed connections, and the terrifying nature of growing up, continue to be timely and resonant for a generation that may feel like it’s always “emerging,” never “emerged”.
Omar Hady is riveting, absolutely charming as Matt, the neurotic writer who can’t get out of his own head, or stop words from spilling out of his mouth, or even fully control his own limbs. His raw need for connection and his sharp dialogue make him the show’s core. They also save his character from most of the pitfalls that tend to occur when a privileged white male writer writes about what it’s like to be a privileged white male writer; the play is very self-aware, and gets in a few digs at itself and the form.
This self-referential aspect means there are lots of gems for the arts community in the audience; it’s written with a young, Ivy League-educated (or overeducated) art world in mind, with all the associated opportunity, depression, anxiety, and navel-gazing that entails. Hady still manages to make the character sympathetic and delightful.
Chloe Sullivan is also excellent as Christina, and has a beautiful voice. A woman of many layers, she is stripped, both literally and figuratively, until there is almost nothing left.
Luis Fernandes is powerfully convincing as the asshole “frenemy” who displays a couple of fascinating but all-too-fleeting moments of vulnerability. The actor is up against the script here, which makes him so aggressively jerkish that it’s hard to see how this branch of the love triangle ever held up, even if we’re told of actions that happened off stage. He’s a bit of a straw man character, (a “straw douche”?), too easily hated. This is particularly evident in the later stages of the play, where his aggression moves from potentially forgivable narcissism to a more virulent strain, something simultaneously much uglier and more childish.
The design (Pascal Labillois) makes the most of the intimate space (which is supposed to be claustrophobic); the windows of the Red Light District become apartment windows; a hallway becomes an incriminating closet.
Matt calls one of his pieces an “unwell-made play” in its untidiness and unconventional structure, and ironically, it’s in the conventionality of an ostensibly messy or “edgy” ending where the play starts to seem too tidy, leaning on dramatic clichés and stereotypes (particularly about sex workers, stereotypes which it so nicely circumvented earlier), with expected beats. Everything attractively comes full circle via imagery, but at the end, I found myself wondering: do we feel theatre needs tragedy and bleakness to be important, the more the better? Why is that? For a writer, sometimes the harshest-seeming decisions are actually the easy way out.
That being said, there are many moments in the play, particularly the touching, awkward, and strangely beautiful interactions between Hady and Sullivan, that make sparkling magic, and the two and a half hours flew by. In the bleak midwinter, maybe that’s enough.
- Red Light Winter plays at Unit 102 (376 Dufferin Street) until January 23rd, Tuesday-Saturday at 8pm.
- General Admission tickets are $25 (with Pay What You Can Tuesdays) and are available at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Warning: There is smoking of herbal cigarettes on stage, nudity, and a great deal of sexual content. Not recommended for children.
Photo of Omar Hady, Luis Fernandes, and Chloe Sullivan provided by the company