January 4, 2012

"Close-Up Space" is Too All Over the Place

What are they teaching in drama schools and playwriting workshops?   
I ask because so many playwrights today seem to think all they need is snappy dialog and then voilà, they have a play. It’s like they all graduated from the Henny Youngman School of Dramaturgy.  What happened to full-bodied characters, compelling situations, challenging ideas?  

I found myself thinking about these questions and other similar ones as I tried to keep my mind from wandering while watching Close Up Space, the new play by Molly Smith Metzler that is running at Manhattan Theatre Club’s City Center Stage through Jan. 29. 

Metzler, whose bio lists degrees from both The Juilliard School and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, isn't untalented.  In fact, she's one of the up-and-coming playwrights who has been given all kinds of fellowships and residencies to develop her work. Her play Elemeno Pea was a hit at the 2011 Humana Festival of New American Plays (click here to read a Q&A with her). 

But Metzler has had the misfortune to come along at a time when the term “well made play” seems to be regarded as a malady. Metzler, who's 33, cites Marsha Norman and Christopher Durang as role models but her play lacks the kind of solid scaffolding on which those older playwrights drape even the wildest flights of fancy.

Close Up Space—the title is a play on the proofreading symbol that means one should get rid of an unnecessary space and bring the things on either side of the gap together—is a basic dysfunctional-family play, gussied up with some overly eccentric characters and a few faux-absurdist touches. 

The main-protagonist is Paul, a senior editor at a publishing house and the widowed father of a teenage daughter. The play opens as he’s training a new intern by taking a critical red pencil to the letters the headmaster of his daughter’s school has sent explaining why the girl is being expelled.

Even critics who didn’t like the rest of the play loved this scene, which is supposed to set up what a perfectionist Paul is in everything except fatherhood. But I didn't buy a bit of it.

First off, Paul edits the letters on an overhead projector.  There’s no inherent reason for him to do that since he has a computer on his desk. The only possible reason he’s using the outdated machine is that it allows the audience to see the changes he’s making and be amused by them. 

Second, and more importantly, it’s unlikely that even the most uninvolved dad would be more concerned with syntax than the fact that his kid is being thrown out of school.  And the play goes downhill from there.

Subplots involve the publishing house’s most successful author who has the hots for Paul and his assistant, a slacker who has literally moved into the office following a falling out with his dog (no, that’s not a typo).  And, of course, there’s the daughter. She's so angry with her father that she will only speak to him in Russian, which he doesn’t understand.

What I don’t understand is what the actors—so many of them fine comedians—saw in Close Up Space when they signed on to do it.  David Hyde Pierce plays Paul and he summons all his prodigious gifts and personal likeability to lift that opening scene and the play as a whole. But there’s only so much he can do. By the end he looks as embarrassingly bewildered as everyone else onstage.

Rosie Perez is miscast as the demanding author but she still gets some big laughs, largely because she’s Rosie Perez and is basically incapable of not being funny. Michael Chernus, one of my favorite young actors, is given little but whimsy to work with.

Even the production's few bright spots are sabotaged. Set designer Todd Rosenthal has created a beautiful and minutely detailed office for Paul but both he and director Leigh Silverman stumble big time when, later in the play, a dramatic change is required.

I saw Close Up Space with a holiday matinee audience that was full of AARP types, out for a good time and eager to see Hyde Pierce.  But you could feel the goodwill leaching out of them over the course of the play’s 90-minute running time. 

“I can’t understand a word she’s saying,” the woman across the aisle from me whispered, not quietly, to her girlfriend.  “That’s because they’re all overacting,” said the friend.  I glared at them. They ignored me.

“Is it over yet?” the first woman asked a few short minutes later.  “I hope so, this is terrible,” came the response.  I was certain that the actors could hear them and I was annoyed by the women’s rudeness but I have to say that everything they said was true.

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