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NEW YORK – David Hyde Pierce has been a frequent New York stage presence in his post-Frasier life, notably in Monty Python’s Spamalot, La Bête and Curtains, which won him a Tony Award for leading actor in a musical. It’s a pleasure, as always, to savor his dry delivery and impeccable timing in Close Up Space, this time as a character with somber shadings. But playwright Molly Smith Metzler’s comedy gets derailed from under him, squandering a terrific setup.
There’s the kernel of a decent play here, and indeed, the first couple of scenes — directed with an incisive grasp by Leigh Silverman (Chinglish) on Todd Rosenthal’s smartly detailed set – are promising. Most of all, there’s an intriguing central character.
Paul Barrow (Pierce) will find an immediate soft spot in anyone who bemoans the ongoing rape of written English. The folks who wince at all those wayward typos, grammatical blunders and syntactical affronts that leap out from web pages, newspapers, periodicals and even venerably published volumes these days will share Paul’s indignation. A respected editor at a New York publishing house, he’s a cranky dinosaur whose proud traditionalism is evident even from his chosen technology – the transparency projector.
With brisk economy, Smith Metzler and Pierce give us a clear sense of Paul — his obsession with language, his challenges as a widowed parent and his blunt social skills. This occurs as he mercilessly takes his editor’s red pencil to a letter expelling his rebellious 18-year-old daughter Harper from the latest in a long line of schools, while interviewing newly arrived Vassar intern Bailey (Jessica DiGiovanni). Paul shows Bailey what he thinks of her Quark and Quickbook Pro editing skills by displaying her internship application, heavily embroidered with red ink.
The first worrying sign that the playwright is veering into self-consciously eccentric territory comes with office manager Steve (Michael Chernus), an emotional wreck because his beloved pit bull Xena has shifted her affections to his roommate. But Chernus is a gifted, naturalistic actor and Pierce plays Paul’s stiff resistance to Steve’s touchy-feely excesses with such aplomb that the contrived quirks can be forgiven.
The same goes for the miscasting of Rosie Perez as Vanessa Finn Adams, the company’s biggest-selling author. A fiction writer of chick lit with pretensions, she has a mouth like a trucker, a sexual yen for Paul and a tendency to threaten switching publishers when things don’t go her way. She’s not believable, but she gets in a few amusing lines.
What Close Up Space can’t survive is the arrival of Harper (Colby Minifie). The playwright presumably intends for us to feel sympathy for the messed-up girl, but she’s a misjudged dramaturgical tsunami who flattens both the comedy and the pathos with such thoroughness that the play never recovers.
Acting out since the death of her mother, Harper speaks only in Russian, carrying a cooler full of snow and a boom box blasting an ethnically appropriate soundtrack. From her self-created exile, she views her father as the Bolshevik who was incapable of responding to her mother’s cries for help and has since been equally inept at dealing with his own grief or helping Harper through hers. He’s fastidious about cleaning up sloppy copy but clueless at sorting out emotional untidiness.
The mental-Siberia conceit is a fanciful one, and pulling it off would require an actor of rare sensitivity and nuance. But Minifie employs only one setting of shrill and angry. So as Harper sabotages Paul’s office, hijacks flaky Steve and makes an ally of Vanessa, the play and all its whimsy get sucked down an absurdist drain. And any capacity for its communication-challenged characters to engender real feeling goes with it.
With an annoying agitator unconnected to any kind of credible reality and a playwright eager to let her take control, Close Up Space becomes awfully wearing for a one-act running a mere 80 minutes. Pierce, in particular, deserves better, but it would take more than Paul’s red pencil to fix this.
Venue: NY City Center Stage I, New York (runs through Feb. 5)
Cast: David Hyde Pierce, Michael Chernus, Jessica DiGiovanni, Colby Minifie, Rosie Perez
Director: Leigh Silverman
Playwright: Molly Smith Metzler
Set designer: Todd Rosenthal
Costume designer: Emily Rebholz
Lighting designer: Matt Frey
Sound designer: Jill BC DuBoff
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club
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