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Close Up Space: Embattled Editor Can’t Red Ink His Life

Theater_Review_Close_Up_Space_NYET540.large

We first meet obsessive book editor, Paul Barrow (David Hyde Pierce) using a letter from his daughter’s college dean to demonstrate the take-no-prisoners approach to literary modification. It’s cut and corrected with a red pen as if with a machete before our eyes leaving mostly blood red lines. That the dean entreats Barrow to come get his out of control, expelled offspring seems of no significance to him. When aspiring intern Bailey-from-Vassar (Jessica DiGiovanni), the sole audience to Barrow’s pontificating wisdom inquires about the girl, she’s told “I am an ellipsis where my hellaceous daughter is concerned.”* Herein lies the crux of the play.

Unable to cope with his child’s acting out after her mother’s death four years prior, Barrow packed Harper (Colby Minifie) off to boarding school and never looked back. Her aggressive (think armored tank) and outlandish reappearance (she shows up on his doorstep ranting and raving in angry Russian to accompanying portable music) sets off a chain reaction irrevocably reshaping his highly controlled life.

Other human tinder in the conflagration includes Tandem Books’ top author, Vanessa Finn Adams (Rosie Perez) about whom Bailey is warned “the last intern who spoke to her is now a sandwich artist at Subway.” A verbose, expletive spouting, gorgon of increasingly Danielle Steele like popularity, Vanessa may abandon Barrow for excessive cuts to her latest masterpiece compounded by the insult of his side stepping her seductions. (And then there’s Harper’s influence.)

The last participant in this antic tale is Steve (Michael Chernus), Barrow’s sweet, scruffy, low key office manager (think Seth Rogan with a beard) who’s taken to camping in the office (in a tent!) because his beloved pit bull Xena has redirected her affections. Despite the editor’s best efforts to evict him, the latter-day hippie gets unexpectedly and pivotally enmeshed.

Playwright Molly Smith Metzler has concocted an inventive piece with comic trappings but an extremely dark underbelly in which neither communication nor comprehension is as simple as scrupulous editing. Texturally dynamic and often buoyant, Close Up Space is ultimately a saga of emotional upheaval. Speeches by Vanessa and Steve could be edited.

Master of dry wit David Hyde Pierce (Paul Barrow) continues to offer pedigreed timing, perfected smug inflection, and expressive physical acting. With this play, he successfully seizes the load-bearing opportunity to additionally embody a character in pain and at crossroads. Hyde Pierce is adroit and consistently credible.

Michael Chernus (Steve) so thoroughly personifies an annoying airhead during the first part of the story, we side with his boss as Barrow swats at the character like a mosquito. As Steve’s simple, effective insight comes to fore, Chernus’s performance grows nuanced without losing its street creds. Vernacular falls trippingly off his tongue.

Rosie Perez (Vanessa) is cast against type in a role that requires a fusillade of intellectual articulation. Except for a Shakespeare quote which is barely intelligible, she admirably handles verbal demands, effectively playing cocky, pugnacious and predatory. Her timing is excellent.

Colby Minifie (Harper) is simply terrific. Whether inhabiting her character’s crazed Russian persona, manipulating the innocent Steve with the single-mindedness of a trained commando, or pitilessly confronting her father, she is authentic, emotionally resonant and focused. Every word and gesture fits.

Jessica DiGiovanni (Bailey) starts mannered but rises to the occasion in a small role.

Director Leigh Silverman has managed to balance tension and tirade, finesse and broad comedy to create an entertaining journey. The piece is filled with wonderful small business while also utilizing the entire set to good effect. Silverman is particularly good with realizing specific relationships. Pauses are immensely effective.

Todd Rosenthal (Scenic Design) creates a fine, old school, literary den, replete with leather Chesterfield sofa and Barcelona chairs. At one point, however, the environment radically changes while the set does not. It’s disturbing. Emily Rebholz’s Costumes and props work wonderfully towards illuminating the characters.

el·lip·sis/i?lipsis: The omission from speech or writing of a word or words that are superfluous or be understood from contextual clues.

Photos by Joan Marcus, from top:
1. David Hyde Pierce and Rosie Perez
2. Jessica DiGiovanni, David Hyde Pierce, and Michael Chernus
3. Michael Chernus and David Hyde Pierce
4. Colby Minifie and David Hyde Pierce

Manhattan Theater Club Presents
Close Up Space by Molly Smith Metzler
Directed by Leigh Silverman
Manhattan Theater Club Stage 1 at City Center
131 West 55th Street
CityTix 212-581-1212
Through February 5, 2012

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