Too Close for Comfort

Written by Mark Peikert on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

Manhattan Theatre Club has given theatergoers a lump of coal
this holiday season with Close Up Space,
a tedious new comedy-drama about editing, the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova,
feminist literature and family failures. That the cast includes pros like David
Hyde Pierce and Rosie Perez makes the whole 80 minutes just that much sadder.

Book editor Paul Barrow, exactly the kind of fussy academic
that Pierce can play in his sleep, is having a rough time. His wife died five
years ago; his rebellious 18-year-old daughter Harper (Colby Minifie) has just
been kicked out of boarding school, his best-selling author Vanessa Finn Adams
is virulent about the importance of Oxford commas, his office manager (Michael
Chernus, playing a slovenly Joe seemingly in his sleep) is sleeping in a tent in the office and his new Vassar-bred
intern (Jessica DiGiovanni) is distressingly given to fits of tears. Leaden
wackiness ensues.

Playwright Molly Smith Metzler can’t seem to decide what
genre she wants to write in. Is it sitcom theater? That would explain Harper’s
insistence on speaking in Russian and carrying a cooler of snowballs around
with her. Is it a microcosm of life, a la Annie Baker, which is what Chernus’
conversational performance seems to be aiming for? Or is it over-the-top high
camp, as when Metzler steals an exchange from the film Soapdish and Perez—utterly if enjoyably miscast as an Erica
Jong-esque writer—declaims Shakespeare in what is supposed to be a withering
goodbye to Paul?

Director Leigh Silverman can’t make sense of it either, and
tries to keep the various tones self-contained. Perez is allowed to vamp it up
with her accent; Pierce reprises his Frasier performance, no matter with whom he has a scene; and Minifie gives a
sloppily enunciated, shrill turn as Harper that erases any doubts as to why
Paul has insisted on sending her away to school for the last several years,
culminating in a scream of rage that goes on for so long both she and the
audience turn red-faced; she from lack of oxygen, we from vicarious

Most painfully and inexplicably in this uneven evening, a
large chunk of the plot revolves around Harper stripping Paul’s office clean.
Todd Rosenthal’s office set dutifully rolls backward—and stays there, within
sight, as the characters wander the empty space it just occupied and bemoan the
lack of furniture and manuscripts. Did MTC use up so much its budget carefully
outfitting Zoe Kazan’s We Live Here with
Crate and Barrel offerings that it couldn’t afford even a curtain to hide the
set? Or, like the rest of
Close Up Space—including the opening scene when vigilant grammarian Paul line edits an
email and inserts an apostrophe in the wrong place—did they assume the audience
was too stupid to notice?

Close Up Space
Through Feb. 5, Manhattan Theatre Club, 131
W. 55th St. (betw. 6th & 7th Aves.),; $80.