Ménage à Trouble

Amsterdam... a city of excess. Marijuana, spacecakes, magic mushrooms — and did I mention a plethora of prostitutes? The city is a veritable smorgasbord of sex and drugs, so, of course, what young guy in his right mind wouldn't want to travel to this uninhibited vacation destination?

Well, Matt (Antonio Amadeo) for one. In Adam Rapp's 2005 drama Red Light Winter, the play's nerdy playwright protagonist is first seen trying to hang himself with his belt. Not the best way to spend a holiday. He's suffering from writer's block, and he hasn't had much luck in the romance department. So ending it all in an anonymous, faraway place doesn't seem like such a bad idea — in fact, it sounds downright poetic.

His suicide attempt is averted, however, when his crude friend Davis (David Perez-Ribada) returns. Buddies since college, the pair enjoy an awkward friendship that consists of Davis' antagonizing Matt and Matt's pretty much taking it. These two can spend hours arguing semantics and comparing favorite authors in a never-ending game of one-upmanship. Tonight, however, there's an added source of discomfort — Davis brings a hooker named Christina (Annemaria Rajala) back to the room for Matt to screw.

Emotionally shaky Matt is paralyzed by the mere presence of a woman in his room, let alone the fact that Davis brought her back to pleasure him. (It doesn't help matters that Davis brags about fooling around with Christina himself before he brought her to the hotel or that Christina confides in Matt that she is moved by Davis' pseudosensitivity.) So it comes as no surprise that, when Matt and Christina finally are alone and in bed, Matt can barely contain his excitement; the session lasts about four seconds. Christina slips away into the night, and the first act ends with a whimper instead of a bang.

Months later, back in New York, Matt is still shaky, but at least he is inspired to write again. His new project is about two friends who go to Amsterdam and meet a prostitute who falls in love with one of them. Unfortunately, she falls for the wrong one — the one who seemed so caring but was really just in it for the sex, not the shy quiet one who treasures their few moments together.

The last thing Matt expects is Christina to arrive at his East Village apartment, looking for Davis and admitting that she has AIDS. Ever the romantic, Matt is so puppy-dog in love with her that he takes her in and runs out to get her dinner. But playwright Rapp is not content to end his plays on a hopeful note and has Davis drop by, setting the stage for a finale that is sexually explosive and completely unforeseen.

Rapp is definitely a playwright with promise, and his works share a uniform affection for angst that mirrors the ill-at-ease society we live in. Red Light Winter isn't as effective as his other plays, Blackbird and Stone Cold Dead Serious, both of which are more intent upon dissecting their dysfunctional characters, but it still strikes a nerve regarding the universal subject of unrequited love.

The Mosaic Theatre production underscores the edginess of Rapp's bleak play. Director Richard Jay Simon never lets the audience relax, from the preshow dancers staring out from behind red-lit windows to the final moments of confrontation and confusion.

His casting choices are quirky, adding to the stark, surreal atmosphere. Amadeo as Matt is sympathetic as the lonely loser looking for love, and he balances his character's moodiness with his comically nervous demeanor and Howie Mandel-style physicality. Perez-Ribada portrays Davis as a manic alpha male, constantly stalking his prey, whether it's the ladies or his put-upon pal. And Rajala serves as the perfect prize for the two to fight over, an alluring blond with a mysterious accent and secrets she is unwilling to reveal. The tension among the three leads is so thick at times that a general sense of claustrophobia permeates the stage. Rapp would be pleased, indeed.

Set designer Sean MeClelland scores points for his versatile dual setting as well as for the Amsterdam street façade that greets viewers on their way into the theater. Kudos also to Travis Neff's seductive lighting, Natan Samuels' evocative score, and Peter Lovello's colorful costumes.

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Elias Stimac