The gentleman sitting behind me at City Center snored gently and persuasively through most of Molly Smith Metzler’s vacuous comedy-drama Close Up Space. Every so often he’d waken with a start, in the belief perhaps that something worth notice was happening on stage, in the belief perhaps that it was time to go home. There wasn’t. It wasn’t.
Book editor and recent widower Paul Barrow (David Hyde Pierce) is, as befits his profession, very particular about the written word. “I emaciate prose,” he says. Paul’s fastidiousness is made manifest in the play’s first scene – its sole amusing moment – when, line by redundant line, he corrects a letter from the headmaster who’s just expelled his intractable daughter. Fortunately for Paul, he can ship the kid directly to another boarding school in distant Puget Sound.
Ah, if only all his other problems – the needy cartoonishly drawn characters that comprise the cast – could be so easily solved. There’s the college intern in need of guidance (a story line that goes nowhere) and the publishing house’s most important author (Rosie Perez, unbearable), who’s given to statements like “I am woman, Paul. … All I speak is woman” and “you oppress my vagina” bafflingly overlaid with stretches of monologue from King Lear. Then there’s the office assistant Steve (Michael Chernus), who, beset by domestic issues concerning his dog, has been camping out in a pup tent in the reception area and wants nothing more than a bit of empathy from the boss. Add to all this the sudden arrival of Paul’s daughter Harper (Colby Minifie) wearing a ushanka, unaccountably spouting furious Russian and quoting the poetry of Stalinist bête noir Anna Akhmatova: “Each day my sadness rages…” She’s revolting, in every sense of the word.
Theater is full of characters who know everything about words – everything, that is, except the right ones to say at the right time. Henry Higgins; Simon Hench, the publisher protagonist of Simon Gray’s Otherwise Engaged; and the philologist title character in Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist are a few examples. Apparently, we are to understand that Paul is similarly flawed.
Unfortunately, everyone he comes into contact with is so rebarbative that his detachment, far from being a character defect, seems like evidence of robust mental health. Only in the play’s waning moments do we learn the (clichéd) source of Harper’s animus toward her father. It’s so poorly limned it’s hard to point fingers.
Close Up Space, which has been frantically directed by Leigh Silverman, zigzags between family drama and tired sit-com, failing miserably at both. A joke involving the over-feeding of goldfish has been lifted straight from Craig Wright’s brilliant Mistakes Were Made.
Smith Metzler tells rather than shows. Consequently, her characters’ motivation – their sudden bursts of rage or Russian – is murky. The play has one asset: Hyde Pierce. Yet the play does him no favors; he’s marooned in a role that fails to make use of his great gifts. At one point he tells Vanessa that he must cut pages 82-149 from her manuscript. There’s plenty of other work for those scissors.