by Gemma Wilson

Let me say from the outset: Red Light Winter is not an easy play, and Adam Rapp is not an easy playwright. This is the man who drove New York Times theatre critic Charles Isherwood to recuse himself from reviewing any more of Rapp’s work, because he bristled against the aesthetic so much. An extreme reaction, perhaps, but there’s a reason Rapp’s plays are so hard to watch: They are brutal, angry, depressing, often violent.

Seattle theatre company Azeotrope selected Red Light Winter, among the best of Rapp’s many plays and a 2006 Pulitzer Prize finalist, as its inaugural production in 2010. This fall, the company has revived the piece, and produced it in repertory with Joshua Hollins’ 25 Saints.

Old college buddies Matt (Richard Nguyen Sloniker) and Davis (Tim Gouran) are travelling together in Amsterdam, in a misguided attempt to recapture the fun and freedom of their youth as they hurtle past 30. Matt is a playwright who’s “been emerging for so long methinks he’s setting some sort of record,” according to Davis, who is himself a fast-rising star in the publishing world.

Matt (a desperate, heart-breaking Sloniker) is on the verge of killing himself, as pal Davis (an aggressive, arrogant Gouran) is out whoring and scoring in the city’s famous red light district. Davis returns to their sad, Ikea-laden hostel room (cramped, apropos sets by Catherine Cornell), with Christina (Mariel Neto) a French prostitute he’s retained to get Matt laid. Apparently, Matt hasn’t gotten any in a while—not since Davis stole his long-term girlfriend, to whom Davis is now engaged.

But when Christina enters the picture, that old love triangle is quickly replaced with a new one: Matt craves her, along with the love and intimacy he envisions in their fantasy connection. Christina, in turn, craves the connection she thought she had with Davis, who never really cares to connect with anybody. All three exist in a state of self-imposed isolation, from which they either can’t—or won’t—break free.

In the play’s second act, we move a year ahead, from cramped hostel to Matt’s cramped East Village apartment, but everything remains largely the same. Matt pines for Christina, Christina pines for Davis, and Davis doesn’t give a fuck about anybody but himself. It’s hard to see why Matt and Davis are friends, other than the fact that they’ve just been friends for so long—not an uncommon scenario for people thrown together in their lonely, malleable college years. When Christina unexpectedly re-enters the picture, things go from bad to worse to violent. Even so, it’s hard to sympathize with anyone on the stage. Davis and Christina aren’t drawn with as fine a brush as Matt is, but while Gouran brings a scarily meaningless aggression to Davis, Neto’s Christina comes off with an emptiness that seems more like affectation, when it should stand in stark, stomach-dropping contrast to the affectation that is the rest of her life.

As directed by Desdemona Chiang, the play dives head first into a seedy world—into love and lust and sex and pain and despair (and, full disclosure, full nudity). The production has its flaws, but Azeotrope’s dedication to producing gritty, grating work with care is evident, and I look forward to watching the company continue to push audiences to a point of powerful discomfort.