Closer offers cold comfort in a tale of coupling and uncoupling

Dan works at a newspaper — he's an obituary writer — and encounters Alice, a part-time stripper, when she steps in front of a cab and gets knocked down. He escorts her to the hospital. There Larry, a dermatologist, looks her over briefly. Some time later, Dan — now happily (as far as we can tell) married to Alice — has actually written the novel he's been wanting to write all along, with a fictionalized Alice at its center. He visits photographer Anna for a jacket photo and promptly falls for her. Some time later still, he's playing around on a porno site when he encounters Larry online, pretends to be Anna, and lures Larry into a meeting at the aquarium. Except that the real Anna actually shows up at the aquarium — she likes to photograph desolate people there — and she and Larry fall for each other. The quartet spend the next couple of hours falling in and out of bed with one another, accusing each other of coldness and infidelity, betraying and feeling betrayed. Surprisingly, Closer is not a comedy. The porno-site scene is very funny, but it's the last really funny thing that happens in this sad, bitter play about coupling and uncoupling.

The action takes place in several short scenes. The dialogue is clever; there are lots of short, sharp sentences, and lots of pauses between them. Sometimes it almost feels as if you're watching Pinter, but these pauses don't carry the undercurrents that Pinter's do, and the rhythms are less evocative.

A lot of the talk circles ideas about lies and truth, masks and identity. Dan, in a sense, steals Alice's soul when he uses her life as fodder for his novel. As a photographer, Anna is a soul-stealer by definition. Alice, spurned by Daniel, takes a job at a strip club, where she encounters Larry; he wants to know her name — her real name, not her name as a stripper — and she tells him it's Jane. He's skeptical, and his question, along with her answer, gets repeated several times. Meanwhile, she's admonishing him not to touch her while rapidly pocketing the wads of cash he hands over. The characters use the word "love" all the time, but what really motivates them isn't love. It's prurient sex, frustration and loneliness.

This production, directed by Bernie Cardell, is very interesting, but not in the least emotionally involving. The theme may be that all of us are strangers and no one really knows anyone else, but the trouble is that we don't want to know these people. They're all unlikable, and not one of them feels remotely human. As you watch the couples switch partners again and again, with the women periodically expressing sadness and the men, in turn, yelling in jealous rage, you wonder whether you've ever actually known anyone who behaved like this. Author Patrick Marber perhaps intended the play to be stylized and cool, but I think he also wanted deeper meanings stirring beneath the surface: There's talk about London's Postman Park, where those who lost their lives saving others are buried, and a shocking reminder of mortality at the end.

That nothing much does stir is primarily the fault of the script, but there are also a couple of problems with Cardell's direction. The pace is slow throughout. Everyone's tone is low-key and British except for the men's moments of rage. Larry is lost and insecure from the start and Dan more intellectual, but played by Eric Mather and Casey Andree, respectively, both guys seem ineffectual. Erica Fox gives a good performance as Alice. She's poised and intriguing, but also for the most part quietly self-possessed. (In a production I saw a few years back, the actress playing Alice gave hints of emotional instability from the beginning.) It's Haley Johnson, as a wise and restrained Anna, who provides what little warmth this Closer has.

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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