By JOHN DeMERS
“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate!”
That line, first uttered by Strother Martin as a sadistic prison warden in the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke (and then reprised by Paul Newman as Luke), might well be the motto of Molly Smith Metzler’s play Close Up Space, an odd, weirdly unbalanced but ultimately affecting comedy-drama now enjoying its regional premiere at Main Street Theater.
In fact, you might say that Close Up Space, with its esoteric brushes on literature, the writing life and book editing all smashed up against love, loss and a truly dysfunctional father-daughter relationship, is exactly what Main Street is on this earth to do. It isn’t always about being slick to the point of perfect. And it isn’t 100% about being commercial, though I believe most people would laugh wildly at the humor and be touched and/or disturbed by the pathos. It is about having a night that takes you where nearly all TV, and even most movies these days, will refuse to take you.
In the late 1800s, Chekhov and presumably others started noticing that “modern life” was destroying our ability to talk and listen in any meaningful way, inspiring the fear that we are all essentially alone. Skipping over serious philosophers like Sartre, this theme runs powerfully through Theater of the Absurd in the mid 20th century – Beckett, Ionesco and those guys – to land us now in a publishing office in New York City with a bitter, angry and totally nitpicky editor named Paul Barrow. You wouldn’t want to have Barrow (played with red-faced, ever-spewing gusto by Rutherford Cravens) edit anything more substantial than your grocery list. He aims to eviscerate, under the guise of making your stuff better in a world of plummeting standards. He has a point about the standards, but…
What’s eating away at Barrow’s soul is the suicide five years earlier of his writer-wife, not to mention his rather spectacular estrangement from his teenaged daughter Harper, who lives as though she’s in Russia and insists on speaking only Russian for the first half of the play. For every parent who’s ever listened to a kid and thought, “He/she might as well be speaking Russian,” Harper is the oh-so-literal poster child. In addition to serving up some convincing Russian, Joanna Hubbard plays Harper with volcanic anger at her father and at God, though God is presumably better at ducking her diatribes.
Close Up Space, like Certs in that old TV commercial, is two plays in one – the first half extremely funny and the second mostly sad. The remaining cast members deliver sterling performances in some very quirky roles, led off by Main Street regular David Wald. As Steve the “office manager,” Wald is someone who’s virtually homeless in the Big Apple who pitches his tent (literally) at work and pines for his dog who is “cheating on him.” Wald has played similar kooky but endearing characters in the past, but Steve might be the most of both he’s played so far.
Similar kudos go to Carolyn Johnson as Barrow’s most commercially successful author, formidably named Vanessa Finn Adams (no hyphen!), who gets to be the brunt of his worst editorial snits while alternately trying to take him to bed and leave for a competing publishing house. Brittny Bush isn’t handed much to do here as naïve office intern Bailey, who really only wants that one credit she needs to graduate from Vasser and serves in her youth as another target for Barrow’s hatred of the world, but she fills the space in a believable fashion. Director Andrew Ruthven makes these strange pieces fit together, I believe, as well as anybody can.