Closer is Marber’s third play, debuting at the Royal National Theatre’s Cottesloe Theatre in London in 1997 before coming to the Music Box Theatre on Broadway in 1999. It is the story of four people: Alice, Dan, Anna, and Larry, as they weave in and out of each other’s beds and sexual politics. This production is definitely a raw examination of complicated relationships and holds nothing back on stage, to the credit of the playwright and the director.
Closer is the perfect kind of show for the Play Ground space. Bleak though the subject matter is, the action is intensity under the microscope. Inarguably, the script focuses on the joylessness of relationships, but, in so doing, we get an almost macabre glimpse into every moment of self-doubt that can push us over the edge.
As the show opens, we find Dan (Daniel Novick) and Alice (Erin McConnell) at hospital, having met after Alice’s run-in with a taxi. Dan, the white knight, sits with Alice as she waits to be examined. Novick’s Dan is earnest, boyish (almost too boyish for the gravity of the script) and flirtatious next to the gritty, worldly introduction we get for McConnell’s Alice. If not for the enticing juxtaposition of Novick’s pretty, innocent face with McConnell’s sexual taunting and languid posturing, the opening scene of the show could very well have seemed like the seduction of an innocent rather than two strangers flirting with sexual possibilities. A brief walk-on in the opening scene by Larry (Scott Mallace) gives no hint of the intensity of Mallace’s performance later on in the story.
The story moves around Dan’s desire for Anna and Alice’s desire for Dan with Larry tossed around to and fro. Anna (Carolyn LePine) takes the stage in the second scene, taking head shots of Dan who is ready to release his latest book. They flirt, albeit cooly, on stage. LePine is perhaps the most believable of the quartet of actors on stage in this production. Her treatment of Anna as reluctant object of affection tumbling toward infidelity and deception is a study in progression–a slide down the slope audiences can either freely identify with or fantasize about without the consequences. Her performance is unfussy where McConnell’s Alice appears to be on the razor’s edge of madness for most of her time on stage. The initial scene between the two women crackles with discomfort, Anna having to reassure Alice’s thin veneer of tough girl that she is not out to steal her man. More could be mined out of this pivot point in the show, however, since both actresses are the stronger of the four on stage. The script, unfortunately, cuts it short. LePine, later on in the first act cuts loose with a barrage of insults to Larry’s sexual prowess as she confesses infidelity and ends their marriage, in a stand-out scene. In fact, each of the actors gets a chance to shine independently on stage: Mallace’s scene with McConnell at the beginning of the second act in a strip club is teasingly raunchy but also reveals his sorrow. Alice’s break up scene with Dan evokes heart-aching sympathy.
There are some stand-out scenes, including, early on, where Dan and Larry engage in some sexual online chat. Scenic designer Curtis Phillips sets the stage with four screens surrounding the actors that provide light and mood as the story unfolds. In this particular scene, Larry and Dan, sitting at their respective computers, share raunchy details (with Dan masquerading as Anna to an unsuspecting Larry) of what they’d like to do to each other as the audience plays voyeur as their IMs are projected on stage. The “dialogue,” dirty and raw is more tantalizing than the expressions of the actors during the scene, but the visual presentation saves it from seeming awkward. Some may view the dialogue and the subject matter too adult for most, but I’d have to disagree. Although the script was written during the nascent days of Internet communications, nobody would be unfamiliar with what’s being set up here, even if they’ve not engaged in any sex chat of their own. During the chat, Dan, as Anna, entices Larry to meet up at the aquarium.
That leads us to the relationship between Anna and Larry. The on stage chemistry between Mallace and LePine during their first scene together is palpable. From bemusement to awkward realization to flirtatiousness, both actors get it just right. Mallace’s performance throughout is a heady study in sexy masculinity and jaded carelessness. His body movements and the delivery of his lines get him past his youthful appearance for the role and he can hold his own against both LePine and McConnell’s gravitas and strength as actors wholly inhabiting their roles in a way that Novick appears to falter with from time to time. Novick does shine and let loose in the closing scenes of the play, though, particularly in a hotel scene with McConnell, breaking through his “earnest boy” exterior into rage-possessed jealousy, threateningly pinning Alice to the bed.
As the four actors find themselves in and out of each other’s lives and beds, the jaundiced eye of the playwright pulls us into an incestuous web of deceits the actors do a fine job of revealing and inhabiting on stage. This is not an easy show to perform and even with the challenges of scene changes that, at times, break the mood and momentum of some of the important scenes, Closer is an intriguing, almost surgical examination of relationships. I think the momentum and mood could probably be stitched tighter together without some of the musical interludes accompanying scene changes, but design-wise, they help move the flow of the show through to the end. The colour palette of the production–blacks, grays, reds–contributes to the overall mood of the production quite effectively.
Closer is an engaging, provocative, and raw production tailor made for the black box. Refreshingly avant-guard, even though it was written just over a decade ago, the cast and director do fair treatment to the subject matter and if you’re looking for a cerebral sex jaunt of emotions in live theatre, it’s one well worth the price of admission.
CLOSER. Written by Patrick Marber. Directed by Molly O’Neill for the Duluth Playhouse at the Play Ground, 11 East Superior Street, Duluth. With Erin McConnell, Daniel Novick, Carolyn LePine, and Scott Mallace. The show runs this Saturday and then Thursday-Saturday through March 5. Curtain: 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10. This review is based on the opening night performance. Review by Dennis Kempton.