If sex sells, Patrick Marber’s "Closer" should make a bundle.
But this British comedy-drama of coupling and uncoupling, instant attraction and inveterate infidelity, offers more than just a voyeur’s peek inside somebody else’s bedroom. It exposes the raw nerve of pain that comes with the territory of love, setting off sympathetic vibrations in anyone who has been there.
Marber writes in sound bytes, his lightening-quick scene changes masked by loud music and bright lights reminiscent of a disco. His language could make David Mamet blush. Be warned: this is no Victorian drawing room drama. Yet the dance of two couples – each in love with a significant other, yet drawn to the other’s other – has all the elegance of an 18th century gavotte.
The current Berkeley Repertory Theatre production of the 1997 Olivier Award-winner has a gritty elegance of its own. From Peter Maradudin’s striking lighting design to a beautiful ensemble performance by a deft quartet of actors, this thoroughbred could be the runaway hit of the summer season.
The way Marber interweaves the threads of four different lives into the fabric of his story is clever, if a bit contrived. The first act is very funny but, after intermission, the strands become tangled in a more sinister knot. In spite of the laughs, this turns out to be an intensely serious play.
Alice is a stripper, very young, very pretty and extremely self-destructive. Her lover, Dan is a writer of obituaries ("Who’s on the slab today?" is the question that greets him every morning as he arrives at work) with literary aspirations. They meet when he picks her up off the pavement after she has been hit by a taxi. Alice never looks before crossing the street – which has both a metaphorical and real effect on the progress of her life.
Larry is a doctor with something of an obsession about sex. He is the very doctor, in fact, who lends a cigarette and a cursory examination of Alice’s injured leg at the hospital to which she is brought after the accident.
Dan and Alice move in together and he finally writes his book, after mining the seamier vein of her past for his material. Anna is a photographer, hired to take Dan’s picture for the jacket of the book. She takes Alice’s picture too, while she’s at it and it will become the centerpiece of her next gallery show.
Dan and Larry meet in an Internet porn chat room where Dan poses as a woman named Anna who makes a date to meet the doctor the next day. This segment, with the typed conversation projected on large screens at either side of the stage, is easily the funniest in the show.
Dan cons the real Anna into showing up at the Aquarium where Larry is raring to go. But the joke backfires and Larry and Anna fall in love. In time, Dan and Anna also fall in love, Larry casts his eye on the youthful and delicious Alice and the sexual sparks start to fly.
It is not enough for these couples to kiss; they have to tell and tell and tell. In the process, all their relationships are destroyed, put back together and destroyed yet again. Closer is actually a study in how lovers push one another away.
"Why isn’t love enough?" asks Alice, after learning that Dan is having an affair.
"What’s so great about the truth?" asks Anna when Larry presses her for details on her relationship with Dan.
And, if everybody had minded their own business and kept their mouths shut, would things have turned out any differently?
If director Wilson Milam has done a first rate job, it helped that he had a superb cast to work with. The four actors: Andrew Borba (Dan), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Alice), Natacha Roi, who appeared in the Broadway run of the play, as Anna and Thomas Schall as Larry, seem born to play their roles. Even the British accents ring true.
As for the playwright’s truth, it comes more in the form of questions than answers and will be recognized by anyone who ever has been in or out of love. In the end it may all boil down to that ancient verity: you don’t know what you had until you’ve lost it.