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.
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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.