×

Closer

The increasing -- and to some degree dismaying -- infantilization of Broadway finds a potent antidote in Patrick Marber's "Closer," a brilliant and bracingly adult new play from London (where else?) that lights a scorching fire under this lukewarm theater season.

With:
Alice - Anna Friel
Dan - Rupert Graves
Larry - Ciaran Hinds
Anna - Natasha Richardson

The increasing — and to some degree dismaying — infantilization of Broadway finds a potent antidote in Patrick Marber’s “Closer,” a brilliant and bracingly adult new play from London (where else?) that lights a scorching fire under this lukewarm theater season. Directed with propulsive rhythm by the author himself, and acted by an incomparable quartet of performers, “Closer” is both bruising and beautiful, shatteringly funny and devastatingly sad. It feels ripped from the heart, an organ memorably described here as looking like “a fist wrapped in blood,” and it leaves a lasting scar there.

Marber has joked that he didn’t realize until he’d finished the play that he had written “Private Lives,” and indeed in its prickly wit and essential structure — two contemporary couples who switch partners more than once — “Closer” recalls that Noel Coward classic. But it’s Coward laced with a nihilistic chill that derives from Samuel Beckett.

Popular on Variety

Love’s inevitable fading is the tragic subject of the play, but it’s also a symbol of the greater inevitability of death. Pleading for love, a character makes the connection with the brutal bluntness that marks all the emotional exchanges in the play: “I need you. I can’t think … I can’t breathe. We are going to die.”

Death and sex, those two great equalizers, are everywhere in “Closer.” Dan (Rupert Graves) is an obituary writer and aspiring novelist who meets the younger Alice (Anna Friel) when she steps in front of a taxicab — willingly, it is implied, although her wry mischievousness at the hospital, where he has escorted her, is plenty lively.

The play then skips forward more than a year (its timeframe is millennial: life is the blink of an eye). Alice and Dan are a couple, and Anna (Natasha Richardson), a divorced and world-weary photographer, is snapping Dan for a book jacket. The sexual attraction between them is instant, but Anna resists. “I’m not a thief,” she tells Alice, who arrives to pick up Dan and senses the dangerous electricity in the room.

The fourth character in the play is a dermatologist named Larry (Ciaran Hinds). It was Larry who treated Alice’s injured leg at the hospital, but he enters the play’s sexual equation only by cyberchance, when Dan, posing as a woman named Anna in an Internet chat room (in one of the play’s crudest and funniest scenes), suggests a meeting at which the real Anna happens to turn up.

Soon Anna and Larry are united, but in the searing final minutes of act one, the lives of all four characters are turned inside out in a masterfully directed scene that brings the subterranean ache of the play into wounding bloom.

Dan coolly tells Alice that he and Anna are in love, and the same information is prised out of a deeply hurting Anna by Larry. From here unfolds an elegantly choreographed tale of love, jealousy, pain and revenge that leaves all the characters wounded and one dead.

Advance press has hyped the play’s sometimes startling sexual frankness, but there’s nothing coarse or showy about Marber’s use of explicit dialogue (only Alice’s sometime profession as an upscale stripper feels gimmicky). When Larry humiliates Anna by demanding to know the sexual details of her alliance with Dan, it’s the brutality of the feeling, not the words themselves, that sears.

Indeed the play’s dialogue has a raw emotionality rarely heard in art or life. It cuts like broken glass, rending flesh with every syllable, and is full of bitter, intelligent, unvarnished truth. When Alice asks why Dan is leaving her for Anna, he replies, “Because she doesn’t need me,” and, later, “Because I’m selfish and I think I’ll be happier with her.” Have the tortured dynamics of love and need ever been laid bare as honestly onstage as they are here?

Marber’s cast is more than up to the task of bringing the needed nuances to this extraordinarily artful play’s complexities (there is not an extraneous line in it, and few are without coolly resonant meaning). Richardson’s casual radiance and her slow-burning way with the play’s wryest passages — particularly a monologue about men’s and women’s emotional baggage — round out the essential goodness of her character.

Graves’ shaggy good looks and puppy-dog eyes are perfect for Dan, who is as deeply needy as he is careless of others’ needs. Hinds, the only member of the cast from the original London production, has a Scottish accent that defines his character as an outsider, and a heavy, brooding presence that makes his emotional vulnerability all the more painful.

But it’s the delicate, exquisitely lovely Friel who is the discovery here. Her Alice is both the nihilistic core of the play and its tender center, and the paradoxical mixture of toughness and fragility that Friel brings to it are essential to the play’s deepest truths. It’s a star-making performance.

The design team, too, provides stylistic details that amplify the play’s ideas. Vicky Mortimer’s set, which recalls the work of artist Christian Boltanski, is perfectly detailed, right down to the choice of houseplants for decorative effect: cactuses only! Hugh Vanstone’s lighting has chilly dramatic flair and Paddy Cunneen’s music adds haunting atmosphere.

Despite the stylishly seductive package and charismatic performances, “Closer” is often hard to watch; its truths are painful, its honesty makes you wince. In fact a telling irony of the play concerns the bitter fact that honesty is as brutal as deception when it comes to matters of the heart. There is no easy way out. “I don’t want to lie and I can’t tell the truth, so it’s over,” as one departing lover says — with utter despair — to another.

It’s Dan’s desperate need to know the truth of Anna’s and Alice’s feelings — both sexual and emotional — that drives the play to its dark conclusion. But the quest is futile. The play’s sad message is that the truth of the heart is ever-changing, and tainted by other equally liquid emotions: jealousy, pride, selfishness, lust. Love’s a paltry, unreliable, painful thing, Marber’s bleakly beautiful play tells us — how grim and how funny, then, that it is all we have to ward off the terrors of life and death.

Closer

Music Box Theater, New York; 1,025 seats; $60 top

Production: A Robert Fox, Scott Rudin, Roger Berlind, Carole Shorenstein Hays, ABC Inc. and the Shubert Organization presentation of a play in two acts written and directed by Patrick Marber.

Creative: Sets and costumes, Vicki Mortimer; lighting, Hugh Vanstone; music, Paddy Cunneen; sound, Simon Baker; production stage manager, R. Wade Jackson. Opened March 25, 1999. Reviewed March 23. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN.

Cast: Alice - Anna Friel
Dan - Rupert Graves
Larry - Ciaran Hinds
Anna - Natasha Richardson

More Legit

  • Revenge Song

    Vampire Cowboys' 'Revenge Song': L.A. Theater Review

    There’s highbrow, there’s lowbrow, and then there’s however you might classify Vampire Cowboys, the anarchic New York City theater company whose diverse productions . It’s radical, “good taste”-flouting counter-programming for the vast swaths of the population left unserved by high-dollar, stiff-collar theater options. Vampire Cowboys’ raucous new show, “Revenge Song,” is unlike anything else that’s [...]

  • THE VISIT review

    'The Visit': Theater Review

    Director Jeremy Herrin’s extraordinary take on Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 play “The Visit” is less of a production and more of a show. A wordy one, to be sure, which is no surprise since it’s an adaptation by Tony Kushner that, including two intermissions, comes in at three-and-a-half hours. It’s never going to be described as [...]

  • Freestyle Love Supreme review

    'We Are Freestyle Love Supreme': Film Review

    For any Lin-Manuel Miranda fans whose hearts sank almost as quickly as they rose upon hearing that, yes, there’s a “Hamilton” movie, and no, it won’t be out for another 20 months, succor may be on the way in the form of a probably faster-arriving movie that features Miranda in almost as big a role, [...]

  • Unmasked review

    Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'Unmasked': Theater Review

    It takes guts to admit you were wrong — especially when you have been so right, so often. Take composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose successes with  “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Evita,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Sunset Boulevard,” and “School of Rock” have made him a musical-theater uber-Lord. Early on during [...]

  • Aaron Loeb

    James Ward Byrkit to Direct Aaron Loeb's Off-Broadway Adaptation 'Ideation' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Aaron Loeb’s darkly comic one-act play “Ideation” will be turned into a movie, Variety has learned. The Off-Broadway production centers on a group of corporate consultants who work together on a mysterious and ethically ambiguous project for the government. It premiered in 2016, and went on to become a New York Times Critic’s Pick during [...]

  • Leopoldstadt review

    Tom Stoppard's 'Leopoldstat': Theater Review

    “Leopoldstadt,” the most slow-burn and personal work of 82-year-old Tom Stoppard’s long stage and screen career, is an intimate epic. It springs to astonishing dramatic life in a now bare, but once glorious apartment off Vienna’s Ringstrasse in 1955. The only problem is, for all the visceral emotional intensity of that scene, it forms less [...]

  • Duncan Sheik

    Listen: Duncan Sheik Created a Monster

    The singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik burst onto the musical theater scene with his raucous rock score for “Spring Awakening,” which swept the Tonys back in 2007, and since then, he’s worked steadily on stage — but a lot of his newer projects, including the current “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” have a much quieter [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content