Can “Closer” survive closer inspection? The answer after a second viewing is yes, as Patrick Marber’s Olivier Award–winning play moves nearer to its Broadway opening in thefall. A West End transfer from the National Theater with three of its four roles recast, its initially announced “limited engagement” already extended five weeks through July 11. Marber’s second play (following “Dealer’s Choice”) remains a harsh and knowing meditation on a bruised, assaultive world.
If some of the intrigue has been thinned out in its author-director’s tinkering — a second-act cafe scene, in particular, whose Pinteresque cunning has now been lost — such issues won’t matter a whit to first-time viewers ensnared in a ’90s “La Ronde” that places all its characters on the rack.
It’s Marber’s achievement to write a play that is both a product of his country’s so-called “Cool Britannia” and a comment on it: As it must, the apparent chic of the staging both seduces and repels. Marber makes room for jokes aplenty (one at the expense of New York’s Paramount Hotel staff assures that the Broadway opening night party won’t be held there) without ever suggesting that once the wit stops, the characters are so many functionaries of a placard-waving playwright. The hapless quartet in “Closer” are led by their hearts — or what is left of them — in a drama whose structural finesse makes its own smart appeal to the head.
Among the cast’s new recruits, the great improvement is Lloyd Owen as Dan, the obit writer and would-be novelist who turns out to be far more subsumed than he first recognizes by what is wryly referred to as “the dying business.” The standout (and overlooked) Nick of London’s recent “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” revival, Owen moves aggressively through Marber’s sexual gavotte, pausing every so often to voice one of the nihilistic creeds that give the play its chill. He’s helped by not having to act opposite the overwhelming Ciaran Hinds, whose starring presence the first time around tipped the play’s delicate balance of power.
Hinds’ replacement, Neil Pearson, is physically slighter (almost anyone would be), and more suggestively working-class, with the result that this cabby’s son seems nearer to the “caveman” to which he compares himself than Hinds ever did. (Perhaps Rob Becker should inherit the part on Broadway.)
As Anna, the photographer first glimpsed exhibiting a show aptly titled “Strangers,” Frances Barber brings a softness and fragility to her admission of life’s hard knocks: When she remarks, “I’ve been hit before,” you know she means it, even if one could argue that the men in the play are the ones to suffer the mightiest fall. The play’s invaluable pivot remains the savvily elfin Liza Walker, as Alice, a Soho Sally Bowles whose life both does and, in an odd way, doesn’t bear out the fashion for lying that Dan voices late on.
One only wishes Marber had retained a simple staging device at the very end (evocative of the finish of David Hare’s “The Secret Rapture”) that lent a charge no longer present: As it looks now, the ending — while still moving — is literally difficult to read.
There can be no denying the probity of a play whose characters would seem to be redeemed by their own articulateness — there’s virtually no action in the play whose consequences go undiscussed. While Vicki Mortimer’s set leaves the wreckage of the characters’ lives on view for all to see, so, too, do Marber and an able cast, who find comedy in the most cynical of human maneuvers even as they suggest that the play’s most lasting obituary is for nothing less primal than love.