David Hyde Pierce and Rosie Perez give dimension and hilarity to Molly Smith Metzler’s ‘Close Up Space’

Rosie Perez and David Hyde-Pierce. ()
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When you're an editor, at least the old-school type played by David Hyde Pierce in Close Up Space, you have the urge to take a red pen to everything: subway ads, supermarket circulars, fundraising mailings from non-profits. So it's no surprise that when Pierce’s editor demonstrates his craft to a new intern, he grabs the nearest piece of poorly written prose—which happens to be an unpleasant letter from his daughter's prep school.

Decrying the author's "grammatical incompetence," Pierce slashes the 86-word missive down to five: "Your daughter Harper is being expelled."

In this, the opening scene of Molly Smith Metzler's new play, Hyde Pierce is especially funny. As Paul, a longtime editor for a boutique literary firm, he gives his new intern Bailey a withering glance (and nobody does withering glances like Hyde Pierce) when she suggests that rather than taking pen to paper, he might work more "modernly" on a computer. You can imagine the look that made-up word elicits.

There's no computer in sight in Paul's office (gorgeously rendered with exposed brick walls and arched windows by set designer Todd Rosenthal), partly to convey what a fuddy-duddy Paul is, and partly because it gives his uncontrollable daughter a pile of pages to toss in the air when she arrives in his office for the inevitable showdown. Pressing the delete key just isn't as dramatic.

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Had Paul been saving his documents to the Cloud, or even a backup drive, he would never have gotten to have the enormously entertaining blowout over a missing manuscript with his most famous writer, the imperious Vanessa Finn Adams. ("Do not make eye contact with her," Paul warns Bailey, adding that the last intern to make that mistake ended up "a sandwich artist at Subway.") And thank goodness for Paul's oversight, because the appearance of Rosie Perez, with her soft curls and sharp tongue, as Vanessa is one of the chief pleasures of Close Up Space.

Just as she did a few seasons back in The Ritz playing a vocally challenged nightclub singer, Perez make a rather underwritten character so compelling that it's hard to take your eyes off her. (Emily Rebholz's curve-hugging costumes don't hurt, either.) Perez makes Vanessa a formidable opponent for Paul, and you take her "woman threat of womantude" very serious. And did I mention she’s funny? There's something ludicrous about the way Perez pronounces the phrase "Oxford comma," and it gets a big laugh every time.

In between Vanessa's two memorable scenes and Paul’s general excellence, the other characters in the play don't quite pick up the slack. As the publishing company's office manager, a schlub named Steve who camps out in the lobby (literally— in a big yellow tent), Michael Chernus is as affable as always. But Steve is just a collection of supposedly endearing quirks—jealousy over his pit bull's affection for his roommate, for example—that, put together, don't really add up to endearing or, more importantly, very funny. And Jessica DiGiovanni, as Bailey, seems on hand just to give Paul somebody to lecture.

Colby Minifie has a tough job as Paul’s freshly expelled daughter, Harper, who shows up at the office unannounced blaring what sound like Soviet-era anthems on her boom box. (Boom box? Yep. Seems like Harper's as behind the times as Paul.) We're supposed to pity her because her mother killed herself and her father bundled her off to a boarding school hundreds of miles away. But her incredibly irritatingly oddball behavior—screaming in Russian, throwing snowballs from an ice chest she's brought along—make it hard to warm up to her. And when Harper ramps up her annoyances to outright torment of her father, all our sympathies are with Paul.

Harper's appearance lets some of the air out of Smith Metzler's light comedy. She comes across at first, through the frantic letters and emails from her school, as well as in Paul's descriptions of a childhood filled with hunger strikes and burning tree houses to the ground, as a terrifying figure. But as good as Minifie is—and she's very appealing, especially in the rare quiet moments—the flesh-and-blood Harper just can’t live up to her such horrible P.R.

Director Leigh Silverman is perfectly matched with the material, as she excels at plays walking the line between comedy and drama, as she proved with Lisa Kron's In the Wake and David Greenspan's Go Back to Where You Are. But even Silverman can't keep the second half of this 80-minute play from bogging down just a bit. Still, those hilarious, well-written early scenes, especially those between Hyde Pierce and Perez, set just the right tone, and Close Up Space is, on the whole, sharp as a tack and very, very funny.

Manhattan Theatre Club's production of Close Up Space is playing at New York City Center Stage 1, 131 West 55th Street, between 6th and 7th avenues. Tickets are $80 and are available at 212-581-1212 or www.nycitycenter.org.