When you look at the premise of playwright Adam Rapp’s Red Light Winter, it may seem pretty conventional. Davis fixes up best friend Matt with Christina, hoping to heal his ailing spirit. Pull him out of despair. As fate would have it, though, Christina falls in love with Davis and Matt, with Christina. Ah, yes, the old story. Unrequited love. Cruel irony. We’ve heard it all before, right? Well, yes and no. Red Light Winter is astonishing. It takes a familiar scenario with intensely savvy, unflinching honesty, and drags us deeper and deeper into the abyss along these three lost souls. Heartbreaking doesn’t cover it. Neither does painful. It’s excruciating and merciless and poetic and gorgeous and overwhelming. Red Light Winter is the kind of transcendent, life-changing experience that we talk about in the abstract, when we describe the miraculous possibilities of theatre. Rapp has fashioned a compass to guide us through a blinding snowstorm. Or shitstorm.
Matt is a writer and his best friend since college, Davis, is a publisher. Taking a break from Manhattan, they visit Amsterdam, where drugs and sex trade are legal and readily available. Matt has been wrestling with isolation and depression. A prolonged bout with illness has only made it worse. Not ten minutes into Red Light Winter we witness his failed suicide attempt, which seems funnier early in the play. Davis returns with Christina, a French sex worker who is somewhat quiet and subdued. Davis and Matt have apparently decided a sexual encounter (after a long dry spell) may have a healing effect on Matt’s despondency. Davis is the alphadog here. He’s all banter and bluster and convivial chatter. He’s the kind of guy who expresses love for other men by mocking and otherwise verbally abusing them. Even when they clearly don’t like it. Actually, he mocks Christina, too, but it’s key to notice that he makes his feelings for Matt inaccessible.
Maybe halfway through the first act, Christina returns from the bathroom, dressed in an exquisite red gown. She sings for the two men. It’s a surprising moment. We’re really not prepared for this raw, enervating, mixture of melancholy desire. We don’t know that much about Christina, and we’re still getting our bearings. Here, in the midst of all this noise and bravado, we suddenly get this brilliant, tragic testimonial to the radiant damage of love. Matt and Davis are stunned, because she’s not just gifted. She’s real. In light of the context, they don’t know quite how to respond. After awhile, Davis leaves the two alone. Matt knows she’s already been with Davis, that it took a long time for him to climax. They talk for a bit, before they undress and make love. Matt falls asleep afterwards and Christina goes, leaving her red gown behind for him. Matt rises and when he realizes she’s gone, sits naked and cradles the gown in his lap, inhaling her perfume.
Rapp makes careful use of nudity. It’s entirely consistent with the story, neither lurid nor exploitative. You could probably say this part of the drama, when Christina and Matt make love, is the most benevolent. Rapp uses nakedness as prelude to far more harrowing exposure. It’s no surprise really, that Davis doesn’t disrobe for sex. Or that, after seeing Matt at his most vulnerable, he later reveal secrets that will leave you all but inconsolable. Matt understands the value of confiding and confession, even if he knows it won’t change anything. He doesn’t disclose anything sordid or creepy. Like Christina’s ballad, it’s so disarmingly tender and unashamed that your eyes just naturally brim. And your heart goes crack.
I think most of us have either seen or experienced the situation in Red Light Winter. We’ve fallen in love with the wrong person or known someone who has. We’ve witnessed the sadness of caring people attracted to the one person who has no interest in them. It happens all the time. But Red Light Winter is no simple love triangle. Matt cherishes Christina in a way that Davis never will. Davis probably loves Matt more than anybody else, but treats him despicably. We’re aghast that Christina doesn’t realize how happy she could be with Matt. But there’s something about Davis and his obnoxious, kinetic machismo that plays like confidence. And it’s infectious. In the best and worst sense.
Director Regan Adair, Alex Organ (Davis) Drew Wall (Matt) Natalie Young (Christina) have done phenomenal work here. Nothing less. This kind of material is so difficult and dangerous, so brave and unrelenting. You can’t help but admire the dedication it must take to explore these dark, angry, elegiac realms. We can’t always agree on what the truth is, but Adam Rapp’s version feels frank, viable, implacable. If you’re fortunate enough to see Red Light Winter you’ll probably remember it for a very, very long time.
Second Thought Theatre presents Red Light Winter, playing April 22nd – May 7th. Addison Studio Theatre (at Water Tower Theater) – 15650 Addison Rd. Addison, TX. 214-616-8439. www.secondthoughttheatre.com