That Adam Rapp’s 2005 play should be staged in Bath is an appealingly ironic happenstance; any of the city’s numerous overseas tourists entering the Ustinov in hopes of a theatrical experience to match the quintessential Englishness of their surroundings will find themselves sorely disappointed. For what Rapp offers is his own rich, razor-edged and relentlessly piquant investigation of that same uniquely American brand of masculinity which has previously occupied the minds of dramatic stalwarts from Miller to Mamet. Here, it is given a stunning UK première by Richard Beecham as the first production in a trio of never-before-seen works from across the pond, to be staged throughout the spring at this most enterprising of venues.
Matt and Davis are 30-something friends at opposite ends of the success spectrum; Matt a high-minded but little-earning playwright without a produced work to his name, and Davis on the fast-track to publishing stardom after pulling an unpredictable bestseller out of the slush pile. In Amsterdam, spurred on by the presence of a display-window prostitute – Christina – who Davis has hired out for his intensely inhibited pal, their relationship is gradually stripped back to reveal the fundamental sickness at its core; the symptoms of which comprise not only professional incompatibility but sexual jealousy, artistic differences and machismo one-upmanship in all its myriad forms.
The passive-aggressive intensity of these standoffs, which range from the subtlest of glances to the most boisterous, latently homoerotic of locker-room scraps, pervades the entire play; no exchange is without biting subtext. Beecham and his cast have clearly tapped into this to produce a style of delivery which manages to be both authentic and larger than life; Keir Charles imbues the obnoxious Davis with enough brazen, arrogant vulgarity to power a teen movie franchise, but never loses sight of the underlying animal magnetism which makes Christina’s attraction to him believable. Sally Tatum and Ilan Goodman do similarly impressive jobs as Christina and Matt – it is because of their initial submission to the overused clichés of ‘prostitute with dreams of betterment’ and ‘neurotic, cripplingly introverted artist’ that the pay-off for their surprising and delicately handled character developments is so rewarding.
It is true that Rapp’s second act – which takes place in Matt’s East Village apartment a year after the events of Amsterdam – leans a touch too far towards the melodramatic in its portrayal of what the playwright himself convolutedly describes as “a double-unrequited love triangle”. There is more explicit brutality of both the emotional and physical varieties than has been seen pre-interval, and yet, with one notable exception, the level of audience unease has diminished. What never lets up however, is the sheer class of each and every component of this production – in an ideal world, these three actors, Simon Kenny’s bohemian-chic sets and Fergus O’Hare’s meticulously evocative sound design would be packed up and transferred to the Royal Court as soon as humanly possible.
Because even if it’s not always perfect, it’s brave. Promotional material may have traded on the obvious fact that full-frontal nudity and simulated sex aren’t immediately associated with Bath’s regular theatrical clientele, but even this isn’t the real point. What the full-bloodedly American Rapp and this British production team ought to be lauded for is readdressing for the twenty-first century a set of social, sexual and psychological themes which – with plays such as Glengarry Glenn Ross and even The Homecoming still oft-revived – many may mistakenly pronounce fully explored. As exciting, witty and intelligent ripostes to this argument go, Red Light Winter is a very strong one indeed.
Red Light Winter is playing at the Ustinov Studio in Bath until 31 March. For more information and tickets, visit www.theatreroyal.org.uk