The trio of characters who make up Adam Rapp's scabrous new drama, Red Light Winter, are a cruel, cunning bunch, and while they are all guilty of using sex as weapon, the only people these masochists end up hurting are themselves. In fact, misery riddles the Barrow Street Theater, where Winter is playing. Matt (Christopher Denham), a depressed playwright, is vacationing with his former college roommate and apparent best friend, Davis (Gary Wilmes), in Amsterdam's red light district. After Matt survives at the play's beginning an abortive suicide attempt by hanging, the cockier Davis arrives. But he is not alone. He has brought a French prostitute, Christina (Lisa Joyce), from a local club—not for his own purposes, we eventually learn, but as a gift for Matt.
It turns out that Matt has been in a funk for three years, ever since his girlfriend Sarah broke up with him, leaving him for Davis. The Davis-Matt relationship is the central one in writer/director Rapp's play, but also the one least explored. Why are these two 30-year-olds, with different upbringings and temperaments, still good friends? If Davis has betrayed Matt, why is he Matt's lone confidant?
Christina, it turns out, has her own mysteries, many of which also remain unanswered. She and Matt do tryst while in Amsterdam, but when the action returns to Matt's home in the East Village (kudos to Todd Rosenthal's convincingly claustrophobic set design) and the characters reunite, it turns out she is a very different woman from what the audience originally thought her to be. She emerges as somewhat more of a victim, yet she continues to be an enigma.
Rapp's disappointing plot is less important than his characters, particularly his male ones. Davis calls to mind fellow playwright Neil LaBute's work. Wilmes understands Davis—a misogynist, a man to whom everything has been handed and for whom everything has worked out, and someone who knows no boundaries but looks for new ones to push—and never seeks sympathy in his portrayal. As a result, we never grasp Davis's motivations—for instance, does proffering sex to Matt really assuage his guilt?—but we believe him.
Christina is a bigger muddle, and it is not clear that Rapp knows exactly what he wants to make of her. At times, she appears manipulative, while at others, she's merely wounded. Joyce does the best she can to navigate this self-destructive character.
As Matt, however, Denham gives one of the more astounding performances of the season. Matt is a complicated man, both wise and socially naïve, a linguist (Rapp's attention to the details of language through Matt, a stickler for correct word usage, is one of the play's highlights) and a playwright who carries an enormous amount of weight and worry with him onstage. (Given Denham's intensity during the curtain call, perhaps that weight lingers with the actor.) Many people, exemplified by Christina and Davis, have lives that intersect with others but never pay any attention to the people they encounter in passing; Matt, on the other hand, remembers everything, which is both a blessing and a curse.
But one wishes that all these lessons amounted to something more than the basic notion that young people use sexual encounters to fill emotional voids. That's a little elementary for a show that portrays attempted suicide, simulated sex, and drug use. Why, for instance, does Christina, who has had many Johns, fixate on Davis? We never really learn, and as a result, Winter loses whatever gravitas was built up during the first act. What it all comes down to is that if this one night in Amsterdam was so pivotal for these characters, they must all lead pretty boring lives.