The best way to describe Close Up Space by Molly Smith Metzler at the Manhattan Theater Club, assuming you follow theatrical by-lines, is as a cross between two Simons—Simon Gray and Neil Simon—and name-your-favorite-comic-absurdist (Murray Schisgal? Jules Feiffer? the writing staff of Northern Exposure?). Here’s why:
Its hero is as Simon Gray as they come. He’s Paul (David Hyde Pierce) the editor of a small but prestigious publishing house. He’s candid to the point of insensitivity, never suffers fools gladly and rather cherishes his insularity. He gets to people because he doesn’t let people get to him.
The play’s treatment of him is Neil Simon-esque though because unlike Butley, Quatermaine and Otherwise Engaged’s Simon Hench, he’s not presented in so fatalistic a light as to be past reclamation. Indeed, those with whom he interacts seem dedicated to drag him into the light of interpersonal relationships whether he wants to go there or not. One of those is Bailey (Jessica DiGiovanni) a shy and ordinary new intern, who seems to exist primarily as a sounding board for Paul, so we can meet him full strength, before he collides with those as strong and willful as he. Another is an amusing but familiar character to plays set in the publishing world: a tempestuous bestselling author, whose temper needs tio be indulged, Vanessa Finn Adams (Rosie Perez).
The absurd contingent is represented first by long-haired, portly, 30ish Steve (Michael Chernus) the office dogsbody who has been surreptitiously living in the office, pitching a tent in the reception area when (he thinks) everyone else has gone. And why? Because he’s jealous of his dog’s affections toward his new roommate. It’s a triangle he can’t seem to handle. Finally there’s Paul’s estranged daughter Harper (Colby Minifie) who has been expelled from college for disruptive behavior, and takes “acting out” to the level of performance art in which the illusion is never broken for straightforward communication.
Under the direction of Leigh Silverman, the cast gives this comic brew every possible advantage of expert portraiture and timing. And often the material rewards their efforts—and our indulgence—because the playwright, in the best sense, has a healthy sitcom reflex. But there are little misfires of credibility along the way, and the add-up doesn’t quite.
examine Close Up Space too deeply is to
expect too much of it. Ms. Metzler may have deep thematic issues in mind, but
she hasn’t got—at least hasn’t got yet—the poetry and control of Herb Gardner, who
could write something as rousingly funny as A Thousand Clowns or I’m Not Rappaport (among others) and still leave you feeling like
you’ve just learned something profound about the human condition. What she does
have is an interesting comic voice; right
now it’s borne of an uncommon amalgam of styles that are searching for their
proper blend and balance, toward the evolution of her own distinct voice…but
it’s in there, somewhere, and worth being encouraged. And if you attend, you
may find yourself happy to have made its acquaintance.
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