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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
The bet sex is anon. We live as we dream, ALONE
--an anonymously typed message in cyber space
Don't be surprised if Closer , Patrick Marber's second play (#1 was Dealer's Choice) adds some American prizes to the Olivier, Evening Standard and the Critics' Circle awards it already nabbed in its initial London run. It's a slickly engineered and choreographed sexual pas de quatre, a comedy of manners. But while Mr. Marber, who also directs, has filled the two hours and fifteen minutes with lots of laughter, he brooks no happy endings.
The title sums up the inability of these people to be close even during their most physically intimate moments. If Harold Pinter hadn't gotten there first, Betrayal would have been even more apt. You see Alice (Anna Friel) falls in love with Dan (Rupert Graves). Dan falls in love with Anna (Natasha Richardson) when she takes his picture for the cover of a book he has written about Alice. Then an exchange between Dan (pretending to be a sexually adventurous woman) and Larry (Ciaran Hinds ) in an Internet chat room, throws Anna and Larry together. And so the circle of betrayal spins round and round during intervals ranging from days to months and sometimes several years.
Closer sizzles with nasty, incisive and often x-rated dialogue. It also takes an intriguing structural detour from the old-fashioned beginning-middle-end love quadrangle. The middle of each phase in the mating and unmating game is a blackout with few intimations of the more tranquil (but to Marber, boring) moments in the happiness-resistant relationships.
The scenes we see, and even those we don't, make clear that not one of the foursome is getting closer to the gold ring of truth and intimacy all claim to desire. Anna sleeps with Larry so he'll agree to a divorce so she and Dan can marry. Dan reacts to her telling him about it with "What's so great about truth. Try lying for a change." Larry at one point yells out "What do you have to do to get a little intimacy around here" and ends up settling for a coarse substitute.
The dynamically paced scenes also show off Mr. Marber's skills as a director. He fits words and actions together as neatly as pieces in a jigsaw. His two men and two women -- just enough for an economically feasible but full-bodied play -- fill the stage completely.
As a happy ending is not in the playwright-director's game plan, his characters are not people you'd choose as friends, lovers or role models for kindness and general mental health. Yet, the women especially lay claim to our sympathies, and all seduce us with their blend of wry senses of humor and inner despair.
The casting couldn't be better. Natasha Richardson is blonde and elegant as the heartbreaker whose own heart seems always on the verge of breaking . For all her sharpness and sophistication, she conveys an inner loneliness that's reflected in the strays collected for an exhibition of her photos .
Rupert Graves brings a low-key, self-deprecating charm to Dan the would-be writer whose lack of "voice and talent" sent him to "the Siberia of journalism" -- the obituary page. Ciaran Hinds captures both the mean and likeable streak in Larry, a volatile "common" man politically as well as in his sexual tastes. His career, like that of the other three, is fraught with symbolic significance -- a dermatologist with a penchant for exploring another kind of the skin trade. Dan and Larry are as alike as they are different. As Anna puts it to Alice during one of the play's most trenchant scenes both Dan and Larry have succumbed to the myth that women overpack. "We arrive with our baggage. . .they have none. . .then, just" as you're relaxing. . .Great Big Juggernaut arrives with their baggage. It got held up!
The standout performance comes from stage newcomer Anna Friel who plays the emotionally fragile one-on-one strip act performer with exquisite charm and anguish. Her big-eyed, forlorn prettyness make her a perfect addition to Anna's gallery of lost souls. Her accident proneness is Mr. Marber's version of the smoking gun which once brought out must go off. While not a newcomer to screen acting, Ms. Friel's debut affords theater goers an opportunity to say "I saw her in her first Broadway show."
Vicki Mortimer's set, while a bit stage-y, effectively wraps itself around the dark theme of loneliness, The movie-theater sized screen that pops down for the scene in the "London F. . ." Internet chat room is as amusing and scary a dramatization of such cyber encounters as I've seen. (It will make logging in at CurtainUp seem like a visit to a staid and proper tea room). The computer imagery is also evident in the split screen effect of various acts of betrayal taking place in different locations but seen simultaneously -- expertly navigated by the ensemble. The set and props, like all of this play's neatly dove-tailed elements, underscore the no-can-touch relationships and messiness of our lives. Alice's framed photo from Anna's show and the figure of a girl in a museum case, even when no longer needed, remain at stage rear with those mysterious empty frames on the bleak black brick walls of the Monument Park backdrop.
Closer, is about affairs of the heart -- but a heart that, as Doctor Larry defines it is "wrapped in a bloody fist." That's why, much as you'll probably enjoy the play, you're apt to leave theMusic Box grabbing your companion's hand and looking elsewhere "for a little intimacy."