Too Close For Comfort

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Manhattan Theatre Club has given theatergoers a lump of coal this holiday season withClose 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 inhissleep) 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 filmSoapdishand 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 hisFrasierperformance, 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 embarrassment.

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'sWe Live Herewith Crate and Barrel offerings that it couldn't afford even a curtain to hide the set? Or, like the rest ofClose 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 and 7th Aves.),; $80.

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