Theater

Closer

I'd like to see Closer again, not because the first viewing was overwhelmingly enjoyable or illuminating — although it was definitely interesting — but because the structure wasn't immediately apparent, and you sense that it's important to the meaning. When I got home and went on Google, I found an interview with playwright Patrick Marber, in which he explained that he'd shown us the first and last meeting of each couple in the play. I hadn't realized that — and I'm pretty sure no one else in the theater had, either.

Since there are only four people in Closer, their first and last meetings shouldn't make for a very long play, but these characters keep switching partners — and it's never clear why. They fall passionately, declare their love, then bed-hop off, betraying each other with such frequency that it's sometimes hard to remember just who's with whom at any particular moment. And they don't do any of this with pleasure. Instead, they're surly and conflicted throughout.

The scene is London. Dan, an obituary writer who wants to be a novelist, meets Alice when she steps into the street without looking and gets hit by a taxi. Alice is a stripper, volatile and vulnerable. While they wait on a bench in a hospital emergency room, the two fall in love. Larry, a dermatologist, stops for a brief view of the gash on Alice's leg, then moves on; he'll eventually become the fourth member of the quartet. The next scene occurs after Dan and Alice have spent a few happy years together. He's finally come up with a publishable novel, which happens to be about Alice. He arrives at the studio of photographer Anna to get his jacket photo taken and promptly falls for her. Perhaps the hottest and dirtiest sex scene — and one of the funniest things you'll see on a stage — takes place between the two men. It's conducted over the Internet as Dan plays a practical joke on Larry. Later, the joke misfires and throws Larry and Anna into each other's arms.

Although the dialogue — brief lines that obscure meaning as much as they expose it, charging flying silences — is bitingly funny, Closer isn't one of those fizzy romances in which the changing of sexual partners becomes a waltz. Unless it's a waltz macabre. With the possible exception of Alice, none of these characters is charming, and you don't empathize with them, either. But even if you don't quite know the cause, you can still feel the sadness, anger and bitterness beneath their actions.

Death and loneliness run through the play. Early on, Alice speaks of Postman's Park, a place where the actions of those who died trying to save others are memorialized. This is a real Victorian-era park with commemorative plaques like these: "Sarah Smith, pantomime artiste. At Prince's Theatre died of terrible injuries received when attempting in her inflammable dress to extinguish the flames which had enveloped her companion. January 24 1863," and "Elizabeth Boxall aged 17 of Bethnal Green who died of injuries received in trying to save a child from a runaway horse June 20 1888," and "Henry James Bristow aged eight — at Walthamstow on December 30 1890 — saved his little sister's life by tearing off her flaming clothes but caught fire himself and died of burns and shock." It's an evocative reference, probably intended as ironic, since none of Marber's characters shows the least hint of altruism, and no one gets saved.

You could say that this play is about truth and lies, the difficulty of finding and keeping love, the fact that we never really touch anyone else (images of glass cages recur), the way people hurt, exploit and even destroy each other. Anna accuses Dan of having stolen Alice's life for his novel; as a photographer, she, too, is a thief of identity. There's a lengthy scene in which Larry encounters Alice — who disappeared after being rejected by Dan — working in a strip club. Again and again, cajoling, offering money, threatening, he asks for her name. Again and again, all the while striking provocative poses, she responds that it's Jane Jones. "I know you're Alice," he says.

J. Corwin Christie's performance as Alice is the vital center of this production. Impossibly tall and long-legged, she works on the cusp between gorgeous and plain — now one, now the other — as well as switching on the instant from stormy-eyed and possibly dangerous to cuddly as a kitten. As Anna, Trina Magness gives a quieter, more nuanced performance that's also very effective. The two men — Todd Webster as Dan and Ed Cord as Larry — are less effective than the women. Although their roles are close to impossible to play, they definitely call for more style. So does the production as a whole, which fails to reproduce the brittle, sophisticated milieu that's required. Elizabeth Rose's music enhances the action, but surely the characters would wear better-fitting and more expensive-looking clothes? And couldn't director Brenda Cook have come up with a better representation of Postman's Park than sheets of paper written on with Magic Marker?

Nonetheless, in its first-ever production, Uncorked does pretty well by this sardonic piece of stagecraft.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman