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Close Up Space
By Elyse Sommer
Besides looking forward to any play with Hyde Pierce in the cast, my ho-hum enthusiasm for this genre was tempered by the fact that he would be playing an editor at a book publishing house (to wit, the title which is a proof-reading term when you want to get rid of a space between two words). Having spent a large chunk of my career in the book publishing business makes any play with that setting an immediate must see for me.
I wish I could say that Molly Smith Metzler's script and Hyde Pierce and his colleagues made Close Up Space the exception to my admitted genre prejudice. As is usual with all MTC productions, the play is beautifully staged. Todd Rosenthal has done a terrific job of transforming the wide stage into the editor in chief's book-lined office at Tandem Books, and alongside it a reception area with a huge window with a view of other high rise buildings in New York's Chelsea neighborhood. It reeks of the sort of small but powerful old world publishing world where authors can still count on having their work carefully edited before going to press.
Like director Leigh Silverman's other currently running New York production, Chinglish, the theme here is about the difficulty of connecting and communicating, no matter what the language. In this case this is explored through the conflicted relationship between Paul Barrow (Hyde Pierce), the widowed Tandem editor and Harper (Colby Minifie) his volatile daughter. The disconnect between father and daughter is the result of Paul's being a too demanding editor of Gloria, his Russian born wife, and Harper's unresolved bereavement and sense of abandonment after her suicide five years earlier.
The non-communication between the workaholic father who's passionate about precise language and his troubled and troublesome daughter is exacerbated by her decision to abandon English for her mother's native tongue. We learn about Harper's expulsion from her expensive boarding school from Paul's reading and at the same time editing a letter from the school's headmaster asking him to collect his inappropriately behaving daughter. While he refuses to do so, Harper somehow finds her way to his office. She is dressed to match her linguistic persona.
Naturally, Harper's timing couldn't be worse, since Paul is already stressed out about meeting a deadline for the new novel by his best-selling writer Vanessa Finn Adams (Rosie Perez). Vanessa's unannounced arrival demanding that Paul rethink his heavy red-pencilling of the manuscript of her novel and hinting at her being miffed that he hasn't followed up on the chance to be her lover as well as her editor. (As she puts it: "Gloria was great. No one can dispute that. She was gorgeous and cool and she wore great earrings and was an amazing writer who you followed her around like a goddamn puppy. But she’s dead, Paul. She’s dead. And you’ve been sitting shiva for five years").
To add to the absurdity of Harper's Russian pose and drastic measures to gain her dad's complete attention, there's Steve (Michael Chernus), the quirky office manager who has his own problems (his beloved dog switched his affection to a roommate) and has been camping out in a portable tent in the reception room. There's also Bailey (Jessica DiGiovanni), as a befuddled college intern who may well switch an accounting or pre-law program after being caught up in the mayhem at Tandem publishers
The chief problem with all this is that Hyde Pierce, a master of milking intensity bordering on obsessiveness for comedy, comes off surprisingly one note. He hits all the right notes in his initial monologue — the simulltaneously read and edited expulsion letter from Harper's school. But there just aren't many laughs in the subsequent five scenes. Most of those go to Michael Chernus though his character is more cartoonish than edgily absurd.
While Ms. Smith Metzler's theme has nothing to do with the changing zeitgeist of the publishing industry, she does give anyone familiar with that world a chance to catch her slily referential insider names (Harper brings to mind Harper & Row, a major publishing house; Morris, the house to which Vanessa threatens to take her books evokes the name of one of the leading talent agencies, the William Morris Agency -- and the playwright's own agents). The changes rocking book and newspaper pubiishers (shades of Justin Cartwright's terrific novel Other People's' Money or Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists) would lend themselves better to an absurdist comedy.
Ending as it does at Christmas time, gives the otherwise superfluous intern another of those sly referantial names, in this case alluding to George Bailey, the hero of the annually replayed movie, It's a Wondeful Life. Unlike that durable heart-tugger, Close Up Space, is an unfunny mashup of a modern publishing executive as Ebenezer Scrooge crossed with Harry Connick's charisma challenged widower in the underwhelming revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.
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