After suffering through the massacre of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, I thought I had seen the dregs of the New York theater season. I was wrong. Things reach the absolute nadir of abysmal incompetence with the new Manhattan Theatre Club production at the City Center of a dopey, pretentious travesty called Close Up Space.
The almost always watchable David Hyde Pierce stars as Paul Barrow, the harassed editor in chief of a small but distinctive publishing house called Tandem Books. The setting is the place where he works. You know the place. One of those elegant, brick-walled offices tastefully decorated with Oriental carpets, walnut shutters, Moroccan bound books, and a bubbling fish tank that is more placid and easygoing than the human life reflected in the glass. In fact, the life it mirrors is worse than the violent ward at Bellevue.
When Mr. Pierce gets the right role as the contemporary embodiment of the near-sighted, addlepated Magoos that used to be played by Marion Lorne, there is nobody funnier. (There’s also some Wally Cox in there, and a smidge of Ed Wynn trying to get out.) From Frasier to the Kander and Ebb musical Curtains, he has proved he can do lots of other things, too, but I like him best when he’s falling apart. Alas, alas, there is nothing playable in the miserable detritus of Close Up Space, a nonplay by a Brooklyn writer named Molly Smith Metzler, woefully lost without a compass by the direction of Leigh Silverman. It is both incomprehensible and awful, often at the same time.
No wonder Mr. Pierce seems to have difficulties keeping his eyelids open. He has been given nothing to do and nothing important enough to say that enlightened people want to hear. Tightened up in button-down collars and horn-rimmed spectacles, Paul is an aging preppie, pedantic to the point of obsession, talking about compound verbs, expletives and illiterate syntax while he edits everything from hard-copy manuscripts to personal mail. Among the many contrived distractions that plague him are a best-selling writer (a wasted and largely unintelligible Rosie Perez) who is in a rage because he’s red-penciled her new book to the point where it looks like “a used maxi-pad”; a demented office manager named Steve (Michael Chernus) who lives in a tent and cooks bacon in a frying pan in the middle of the floor wearing only a bathrobe; and a daughter named Bailey (Jessica DiGiovanni) who, after being expelled from college, arrives in an astrakhan hat waving a Russian flag and throwing snowballs. The writer grows and eats nothing but fiddlehead ferns. The daughter is moving to Russia because she has never recovered from the death of her mother, who sprayed the house red wearing combat boots and committed suicide. When Paul is out, she empties the office of its contents (she must subscribe to Wonder Woman), babbling away in Russian and going from unconventional tyrant to total mental patient overnight. In the end, Paul climbs into Steve’s tent for a while, but in the end he is shivering in the middle of the Soviet steppes as the snow falls, like the last scene in Anna Karenina. This is what comes of “exclusive” publishers who print too many books on Egyptian hieroglyphics and 100 ways to cook asparagus that nobody wants to read, and Close Up Space is what comes of producing too many horrible plays at the Manhattan Theatre Club that nobody wants to see. Very little of it is engrossing and a great deal of it is just plain savagely stupid. I mean how can one play be overwritten and pointlessly empty at the same time?
The fact that this gibberish made it beyond one public performance is a testament to the sustaining power of membership subscriptions. The only good thing about Close Up Space is the fact that it is 90 minutes long without intermission. The praise ends there.