NEW YORK — When a distant relationship between a father and daughter involves her hurling snowballs at him from a cooler, the imagery is funny but the symbolism seems heavy-handed.
Lack of communication is a dominant theme in "Close Up Space," a new comedy by Molly Smith Metzler that opened Monday night off-Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club. Leigh Silverman ("Chinglish") directs Metzler's uneven farce, which is saved by an inner core of sincerity and an appealing, talented cast, led by Tony Award- and four-time Emmy Award-winner David Hyde-Pierce, and Academy Award and Emmy Award-nominee Rosie Perez.
Hyde Pierce's character, Paul, is the type he excels at – overbearingly smart, detail-obsessed, socially awkward, yet still somehow likable. Paul has a narrow world view: he still uses an old-fashioned transparency projector to communicate with his hapless intern, Bailey (Jessica DiGiovanni) and sees his job as a book editor as being "to emaciate prose and make it obey." His failure to come to terms with his wife's death four years ago has nearly destroyed his relationship with his troubled eighteen-year-old daughter, Harper, whom he has exiled to far-away boarding schools since her mother died.
In contrast, Obie Award-winner Michael Chernus exudes warmth and empathy as the scene-stealing, wonderfully wacky and sincere Office Steve, Paul's 40-year-old office manager, who is secretly camping overnight in the reception room, his life having spun out of control due to the wayward affections of his dog. Steve continually tries to "hug it out" with everybody and help them work things out, despite his own sorrow over his unfaithful canine and precarious living situation.
Silverman keeps the series of short scenes moving briskly along. When Perez storms in, as sassy, demanding, feminist author Vanessa Finn Adams, she brings sexy energy to her interactions with Paul. Perez isn't fully authentic as a spitfire feminist writer of turgid prose, but she performs with spirit. Her character's attempts to woo Paul don't really ring true, because he's such a dry stick, but her farcical dialogue, especially her advice to him about keeping one's unwanted teenagers at a safe distance, is quite funny.
"Gotta get them on the No-Fly list, Paul. Rookie mistake," she snaps, when Harper inevitably bursts in, dressed in an old-fashioned Russian costume, complete with huge fur hat, and begins hurling Russian insults – and snowballs – at her father.
Colby Minifie plays Harper with relish, exuding the understandable anger of a grieving, sensitive teenager feeling unjustly shut out by her father. Minifie confidently delivers the Russian dialogue, which unfortunately is not all translated for the audience, yet her dramatization gets the meaning across. Quoting soulful Russian poet Anna Akhmatova (who was persecuted as an artist under both Lenin and Stalin) Harper scornfully compares her father "the tyrant" to them, as she plots a vengeful way to rock his world and get his attention at last.
Even when Harper speaks English to her father, it's not clear that he will finally comprehend, and reach out to close the great divide he's created between them. Meanwhile, enjoy Steve's soulful use of his camping tent to "purge" first his own sorrow and, eventually, Paul's, in this silly, yet also poignant 90-minute show, currently performing at New York City Center through Feb. 5.