It's not surprising that no one disrobes in Closer, British playwright Patrick Marber's full-frontal look at sexual mores and modern relationships. The play's four London dwellers seem so comfortable obsessing about sex -- and its sometime companion, love -- that taking their clothes off hardly seems necessary.
The two-hour drama, which won the 1998 Laurence Olivier Award (England's version of the Tony) for Best Play, has its regional premiere, presented by the Curious Theatre Company, at the Acoma Center. Glacial pacing and an overall lack of spontaneity plague Act One, but director Chip Walton manages to shift into higher gear after intermission.
Part of the play's problem is that the relationships between perfect strangers start out like those between fast friends; even though these characters might be accustomed to dealing with intimacy more casually than most, we should still see their basic instincts operating just beneath the surface -- especially when dealing with total strangers in an uncontrolled, unpredictable environment. But that rarely happens. Instead, relationships that should overlap, explode and disintegrate are almost devoid of the chemistry that would precipitate such a progression.
For instance, shortly after the play begins, a grungy waif suddenly plops her head into the lap of a well-heeled writer who has taken her to the hospital after seeing her in the street clutching her wounded leg. He doesn't even flinch when her head lands in his crotch; nor does he take a moment to decide how to react. Instead, the two go on comfortably conversing as if they were enjoying a leisurely picnic in the park -- when any real city dweller, no matter how hip, flirtatious or confident, would instinctively enforce unspoken boundaries over his or her personal space. A few scenes later, the same sort of instant, incongruous familiarity passes between a pair of older characters: Seated on a bench at a public aquarium, a female photographer barely bats an eyelash when a man wearing an overcoat on top of his white lab coat sneaks up on her and makes some suggestive advances; rather than engaging her fight or flight instincts, she turns and talks to this total stranger as if she'd been waiting all her life for an oddly dressed, middle-aged weirdo to sidle up and suggest that they repair to a more private place. On a more technical note, several frantic piano riffs and portentous scene titles that are projected on a screen overhead add layers of pretension to an overly slack tale instead of contributing some much-needed atmosphere.
After intermission, though, the energy and pacing improve and the exchanges grow more spontaneous, making it easier to become involved in the story. In fact, things become considerably more unpredictable during Act Two's opening scene, when Alice (Elizabeth Rainer), a young stripper, does a table dance for Larry (Erik Sandvold), the aforementioned doctor whose sometime mate, Anna (Tracy Shaffer Witherspoon), has just taken up with Alice's ex, Dan (Chris Reid). Naturally, matters only get more complicated, and the following scenes chronicle the four lovers' collective jealousies, betrayals and heartaches.
Discounting their sketchy work in Act One, all of the actors render convincing portraits, though Rainer's is by far the most versatile and down to earth. She and Reid develop a relationship that's as intense as it is tenuous -- you always get the feeling that they're only a hair's breadth away from either permanently breaking up or cementing their bond. As the twisted doctor, Sandvold relishes delivering some great lines, including a marvelous, haughty putdown directed at erstwhile scribe Reid (and, by extension, a host of would-be creative types). "You, writer! Go check a few facts while I get my hands dirty!" the dermatologist declares before scrubbing up for an apparently complex bit of plastic surgery. And Witherspoon rises to the occasion when she and Sandvold lock horns over their crumbling marriage.
However, except for one person's unfortunate demise, all of the characters wind up getting more or less what we suspect they've deserved from the beginning. None of them seriously considers the possibility of reversing course (other than, say, deciding which bed to leap into), or confronting fate on a level that might be viewed as remotely tragic. And, surprisingly enough, the abundance of smutty talk produces precious little sexual tension or emotional electricity. All in all, the production's first half contains so little danger, playfulness or ambivalence that the performers could probably strip and go at it for as long as they'd like without fazing the audience much -- except, perhaps, in a casually voyeuristic way.
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