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Imagine you’re in a tiny gray room with one window, moldy walls, and dingy furniture. It’s winter, and the room is cold. You have been trying, and failing, to sleep for the past week, and the insomnia is making you suicidal. You are plagued by claustrophobia, loneliness, sexual frustration, writer’s block, and your egotistic roommate is driving you insane—the very roommate, who, right at this desperate moment, comes into the room with the girl you’re in love with.
Red Light Winter is a story about unrequited love and intimacy and the loneliness and expectations that nurture love. It is, in director and third-year Will Bishop’s words, “about how a one-sided relationship can last, more or less.” The two-act play, written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Adam Rapp, showcases the tangled relationships between two friends and a prostitute they meet in Amsterdam.
Both acts of Red Light Winter are set in a small room in the middle of winter. Matt (second-year Alex Stein) is a suicidal and socially awkward playwright who lives in New York. He travels to Amsterdam with his womanizing and self-confident friend, Davis (third-year Andrew Cutler). Despite their apparent friendship, Davis often picks on Matt and makes caustic remarks about his work.
His blithe attitude aside, Davis does try to do his friend a favor by engaging a beautiful Parisian prostitute, Christina (played by fourth-year Meg Brooks) to sleep with Matt for the night. Matt falls for Christina almost immediately, and after that night can hardly forget her. When she reappears the next winter at his apartment in New York, Matt is both surprised and joyful. He hopes that his unrequited love can finally be reciprocated.
When Red Light Winter first premiered in Chicago’s Steppenwolf Garage Theatre in 2005, its violent and explicit sexual depictions set reviewers’ tongues wagging. For one controversial sex-scene, the actors were shown in the nude, and the act itself was barely hidden underneath a few blankets. This openness lent the original play a discomforting chord of realism amid the dramatics.
But there will be no nudity in this production, Bishop says. Though he would prefer to stick to the script, he concedes that on-stage nudity in a college theater would have been too uncomfortable. “Some of the actors’ friends are going to be in the audience, and it will be awkward to see them naked,” he said.
However, the sex scenes are still there, and the actors should be admired for their daring. Also, Cutler is brilliant as Davis. He rattles off Davis’s long lines fluidly and with a caustic undertone that lets Davis’s egotistic personality shine through. We see Matt’s shyness around people through his stiff gait and stumbling stammer that is acted out by Stein. Brooks manages to pull off a convincing Parisian accent and even sings on stage.
What is most surprising about this play is that it’s built on archetypes and familiar plot lines. Matt is the stereotypical bookish nerd, and Davis is the popular jerk (think Tony and Sid from Skins). Christina acts the role of the femme fatale—beautiful, seductive, and, as if taking the phrase literally, French. The storyline itself is just as conventional. There are few plot-inducing surprises, and the ending is something we might have expected of a romantic tragedy.
That is not to say the play is anything less of a masterpiece. In fact, what makes it brilliant is its familiarity and simplicity. With well-crafted dialogue, Rapp manages to paint an underlying tone of realism beneath the stereotypical, and the truth has never been made more glaring. Looking past Matt’s awkwardness, we can relate and sympathize with his situation and dilemma.
In a school reputed for its anti-social tendencies, Red Light Winter reminds us of what those LikeALittle postings and constant Facebook stalking stand for. In the end, we are left with a familiar image of a one-sided love, the excitement and expectations, and the bittersweet knowledge of what could have been.