“Everything’s a version of something else,” says an aching lover at the start of the second act of “Closer,” the new play that announces relative unknown Patrick Marber as a true original. To be sure, the young dramatist here incorporates elements of Pinter and David Hare and a scathing dose of the David Mamet-style muscularity that went soft in his earlier “Dealer’s Choice.” But just as the London where “Closer” takes place makes you reassess a city you thought you knew, so does the author’s altogether bruising take on love wring fresh emotions from a time-honored topic.
As acted for keeps by a keen cast under Marber’s lethally sharp direction, the play is sure to leave audiences arguing — not to mention reeling — on both sides of the Atlantic for years to come. Theater doesn’t hit much closer to home.
Marber’s second play, “Closer” exists on an entirely different plateau from “Dealer’s Choice,” though, like its predecessor, it displays a commendable (and these days unfashionable) interest in form. Covering almost four years in the lives of two couples who fall in and out of love (and sometimes in again), the play is so intricately plotted that its structural finesse may go unnoticed by those caught up in the narrative. In fact, it’s as dense with reverberant detail as “Arcadia,” with which “Closer” shares an interest in the emotional equivalents to chaos theory alongside an examination of a love so fierce that it can eventuate only in death.
Love, one feels, is too benign a word for the men in the play, especially Dan (Clive Owen), a journalist (his field, tellingly, is obits) who is as dismissive of words like “kind” — “Kind is dull; kind will kill you,” he says — as he is fond of moral and sexual deception. Larry (Ciaran Hinds), a successful doctor, at least appears to be the opposite: a relentless quester after truth whose rabid pursuit of the facts proves his undoing. The two meet twice by chance, the second time in an already classic scene of cyberspace sex which finds Dan posing as a female sexpot, “a nymph of the net.” There is nothing haphazard, though, about their feelings toward women. “Please don’t hate me,” the photographer Anna (Sally Dexter) tells Larry before leaving him to go off with Dan. Larry’s reply: “It’s easier than loving you.”
If the men define the animalistic pulse of the play as reflected in its often scabrous language, the prevailing spirit of “Closer” belongs to Alice (Liza Walker), a stripper whose waiflike appearance co-exists with the apparently steely child-woman who moves between Dan and Larry. An orphan since the age of 8, Alice exists to be reinvented — to what degree we discover in the final scene — though Walker’s startling stage debut (she’s a far more knowing Sally Bowles) suggests that what the character seeks just as much is transfiguration. Instead, she ends up sharing the nihilism — “nothing matters,” she decides — adopted by Dan, a man for whom love is by definition so disappointing that the only true eroticism lies in risk.
The play and its actors take all kind of risks. “Persuasion” star Hinds emerges as another Finney or Gambon as his sleek composure collapses into raw, brutish pain, his heart redefined as “a fist wrapped in blood.” As a woman who photographs strangers only to become a stranger to the man she weds, Dexter is as Rubensian as Walker is mysterious and gaunt. All the performers move among scenes that counterpoint or complement one another — at separate times, both women dare the men to hit them — coming to a climax of sorts in a restaurant encounter that neatly distills Pinter’s “Betrayal.”
Though the play covers a lot of time, it feels compressed, a result of the fact that the London it inhabits has a disturbingly under-populated air — how else to explain the ease with which the foursome are forever bumping into one another, whether in museums, hospitals or strip joints?
On a set by Vicki Mortimer that piles up the stuff of the characters’ lives to represent the cumulative debris of scarred minds, Marber is as good on detail as he is on thematic heft. This is a writer who understands New York’s Paramount Hotel and the carpet at Heathrow Airport as well as the Romantic urges of 19th-century England and the abstract workings of a concept like “moral rape.”
How significant, then, that a play obsessed with sex should present so little of it. (The one bedroom scene takes place near the end.) In “Closer,” the act doesn’t matter as much as the attitude, which explains why the play is far more disturbing than most works that claim to lay bare the so-called battle of the sexes.
If anything, Marber is overcareful in weaving together the strands of a web that requires careful attention to pull apart; at times, the writing falls prey to the airlessness of the brittle opening exchange, the play’s lone phony moment. But it isn’t long before we are gripped by a tale as ruinous as it is compulsive, whose characters seem to thrive on the act of invention. “Every human life is a million stories,” says Larry, and it’s part of the richness of “Closer” that the play bears him out.