With just two plays, “Dealer’s Choice” and “Closer,” Patrick Marber has established himself as one of the most exciting new voices in the theater. He brings to drama something that only the best writers possess: an accomplished elusiveness, the sense that there is a there there, although we can never quite put our finger on what it is. “Closer,” a major London and New York hit receiving its Los Angeles premiere at the Taper, is a thematically rich work, exploring the knotty complexities of love and betrayal, of intimacy and honesty. At once passionate and composed, the play brings us “closer” to some deep, if unpleasant, human truths. The Taper production isn’t quite up to the writing — this may be one of those intensely intricate works that needs more rehearsal than regional theaters allow. Still, the show is certainly compelling enough to intrigue, if not thrill.
The play begins in a London hospital waiting room, where Dan (Christopher Evan Welch) has taken the mildly injured Alice (an effectively flighty Maggie Gyllenhaal) after she stepped out into traffic. She is a self-proclaimed “waif,” a stripper who’s just returned from New York with barely any possessions. Dan writes obituaries — “it’s a living,” he says — where he is often charged with coming up with euphemisms to describe less attractive characteristics of the recently deceased: a “convivial” person, for example, is an alcoholic. This use of language as something that conceals deeper truths returns again and again.
The next scene takes place more than a year later, in the photo studio of Anna (Rebecca De Mornay). Dan and Alice are living together, and Dan has written a novel, inspired by Alice’s life, which is about to be published. While Anna photographs Dan for his book jacket, the two flirt and finally kiss, just before Alice enters.
Bringing in the final principal player, Marber concocts a wonderfully witty scene, where a large screen displays the typed Internet chat room interaction between Dan and Larry (Randle Mell), a dermatologist with a dirty mind who had made a very brief appearance at the hospital. Pretending to be Anna, Dan sends Larry to a meeting place, where by coincidence — or, perhaps more accurately, poetic providence — he meets the real Anna.
From here on, the play is a dance of revolving emotional connections, with Dan torn between Alice and Anna, and Anna torn between Dan and Larry, with all the characters becoming “closer” over the years, and yet somehow more distant as well. Most all of the scenes are between two characters only, with each combination — the men, the women, Alice and Dan, Alice and Larry, etc. — being played out. In a couple of instances, multiple scenes occur simultaneously.
The carefully calibrated nuances of Marber’s writing is very reminiscent of Harold Pinter’s, especially in the latter’s similarly themed “Betrayal.” Marber, while he’s structurally playful, is a bit less formally innovative than Pinter, which is not necessarily a negative, and much less reserved in his use of sexual language. Marber has also been compared to Tom Stoppard, although Marber is simply not as aggressively intellectual, and is closer (no pun intended; at least I don’t think so) to the earlier British bad-boys like John Osborne and Edward Bond, without their degree of cynicism.
Marber writes scenes with multiple layers, where these unlikable characters are constantly in combat with themselves, feeling one thing, thinking another, and doing yet another, for reasons they couldn’t possibly articulate let alone justify.
Anger and potential violence percolate barely beneath the surface, bursting forth at certain moments, and quickly, upon exposure to the open air, transforming from violence into something else, affection, perhaps, or pity, or shame.
Everything here is changeable, and yet seems fundamentally pure at the moment it happens. Marber keeps the audience on its figurative toes, with love, resentment, honesty, intimacy — the variety of ways human beings feel and connect with each other — coming off as ephemeral. Even some basic facts about the characters that we take for granted turn out to be untrustworthy, and there are several late discoveries in “Closer” that force the audience to re-evaluate what has happened up to that point.
The complexity of the writing requires equal intricacy from the acting.
There’s a big difference between communicating a character’s confusion, and confusingly communicating. Unfortunately, the playing in the Taper production, under the direction of Robert Egan, leans heavily toward the latter. The actors aren’t forced, but there is unquestionably something missing in the interactions that robs Marber’s characters, and the relationships between them, of essential depth.
Part of it may be the English accents, which don’t always ring true, and cause the actors — particularly De Mornay — to fall into a repetitive speech pattern that severely limits the expressiveness of the drama. Not to take anything away from De Mornay, who demonstrates genuine gifts and is well cast as the intoxicatingly beautiful Anna, but hers is a performance that still needs shaping and seasoning. The other three actors have more clearly defined their characters, but the entanglements of Marber’s emotional storyline require all pistons to be firing to make full sense of the material.
The surface elements of the play are more fully realized. Egan has given the piece a slick, contemporary feel, starting and ending with Bjork’s evocative, yearning song, “Joga.” David Jenkins’ sets are pleasurably simple, with four chairs constantly being repositioned to form the basics of a new space. Amy Appleyard’s lighting helps to define the spaces effectively, and is also used to focus in on certain characters at pivotal moments. If, during the course of the run, the acting connects more meaningfully with the rest of the work, this could become a startlingly effective show. As of now, it’s provocative, but not powerful.