‘Red Light Winter’ is poorly written, but was well-played
Sex, AIDS and unrequited love make for a dull plot, but CSULB student actors kept the audience awake.
The protagonist’s explanation of the play he is currently writing is lobbed in the middle of the first act of “Red Light Winter,” the play by Adam Rapp that was staged on campus from the end of February through Sunday.
In the description, a train crash leaves a young boy in a coma. Years later, at the request of the father, the engineer responsible for the accident mercy-kills the boy. This plot he describes beats that of “Red Light Winter” any day, though there probably wouldn’t be as much sex in it.
The three characters – protagonist, antagonist and “French” prostitute – were played by junior theatre major Bradley Roa, senior theatre major Cameron Neckers and seventeen year-old junior business major Christine Penn, respectively. Rapp – who, according to Penn, supposedly fashioned the cocky character of Davis after himself – left the actors with nothing but their own devices to bring life to his play, that for some unfathomable reason nearly won the 2006 Pullitzer Prize.
It’s no fault of the Cal State Long Beach Theatre Department that the stale conflict of unrequited love set at a table for three is ripe with cliché, though one might wonder why it was selected for production. Director Olivia Treviño is actually something of a five-star chef for her ability to transform the original play’s few ingredients into something palatable.
The 2005 drama plods along from a confined living space in Amsterdam in the first act, to a dorm-sized apartment in the East Village in the second. In both acts, though difficult to distinguish by set alone, the plot is not driven by much other than witty – a term used loosely here – banter between the two leading males, Matt and Davis.
Both men are clever “wordsmiths” of sorts, though this may be their only shared feature. From physique to soul, they are portrayed as utter opposites. Matt is the aspiring playwright who, in the first act, is so pathetically torn up over a loss of love from years prior, he nearly kills himself. Davis is everything contrary to that.
Neckers, who plays Matt, stole most scenes with his largeness, both physical and intangible. How could Christina help but fall for Neckers’s sharp portrayal of the hilarious, yet so totally despicable, bad-boy? In turn, how could Roa’s malleable, puppy-dog reality of Matt help but fall in love with Penn’s seductive, yet so strikingly innocent, performance of Christina?
Penn’s charming French accent was endearing, though she seemed to breathe more easily in the sections of the play where she dropped the French façade. Her brave sexuality on stage was much more than a mere crowd-pleaser for the students in the audience.
The performance given by Bradley Roa is almost indescribable. His energy was unrivaled the entire night as he was absolutely committed to every moment. Roa was onstage for almost the entirety of the play, and when he finally did leave the space in the final moments, the show seemed to fall into a kind of chaos.
A rape of the spirit unfolded as Christina found herself in the rough hands of Davis, who took her with an animal aggression that was difficult to watch. Matt returned to the space to find himself alone, and the play came to a close.
Matt confessed that he had given up on the play he was working on in Amsterdam, and was currently writing a play that documented the tale that is “Red Light Winter.” He then embarked on what seemed like his hundredth rambling monologue as he described every element of the show he was literally in the middle of performing.
In this monologue Matt comments that his current piece, “Red Light Winter,” is not a well-made play. If not for that small bit of honesty, Rapp’s supposedly autobiographical tale would be entirely without a semblance of true human spirit.
Without the aesthetically pleasing movement pieces orchestrated by CSULB’s Ezra LeBank, and the freedom by which the three actors lived in this trumped-up world of love and sex and AIDs, the play would have more likely been a two and a half hour nap.