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Closer — Luna Theater

untitled (6)The dialogue alone in Patrick Marber’s play, “Closer,” offers enough excellence to celebrate.

Marber is a playful writer. The byplay he provides his characters shows their universal sophistication and intelligence. Wit is brittle, droll, and to the point. Comments run the gamut from tartly caustic to teasing and flirtatious. Characters say what they mean and are understood easily when they’re joking or having some fun at another’s expense. What makes “Closer” all the more interesting is characters are often flattered by and appreciative of the attention even when a snide or saucy remark hits a sensitive nerve.

“Closer” is an adult play. It shows four people, all interesting in their own right, intersecting and trading off their affection, regard, ardor, and love to savor various levels of fulfillment, security, and validation. Marber is magician enough to make you like, and even admire, the characters as they go through their serial emotional crises and revelations. Somehow, you agree a decision the quartet makes to couple one way or the other, always heterosexually, has some logic to it. The constantly alternating pairing of Dan with Alice, then Dan with Anna, then Anna with Larry, then Larry with Alice (at times while Anna is back with Dan) is not dizzying, coarse, or lacking in credibility. Marber is not trying to illuminate love or relationships. He is telling a taut, if complex, story about four people whose lives interweave romantically, spiritually, and often intellectually. Different from many contemporary plays, Marber is not dissecting or examining anything. Nor is he concerned with family, the supernatural, or social issues. His is a modern tale about intimacy, real and manufactured. He is free and mature enough to tell a story about people and writer enough to keep it on a high level and fascinating.

“Closer” is refreshing in its candor and in its unabashed way of showing four individuals who, once they find each other, in each case by accident, seek each other and crave each other for companionship and yes, sex. Intense and intimate sex. Passionate sex. Because as these couples evolve, no matter who is with whom or which two are apart, they develop a bond that overrides convention or respectable morality. They become mates in a significant way. The great thing about Marber’s script, and Gregory Scott Campbell’s approach to it in a smart and sultry production for Luna Theater, is how raw, honest, and non-judgmental it can be while depicting people who resort to deceit and infidelity but who ultimately illustrate the attraction and repulsion of love in a uniquely forthright and mature manner.

“Closer” is potent because Marber is content to suggest themes and show a slice of life while crafting a compelling story that in itself serves the purpose of engaging and involving an audience. His workmanship is masterful, both as a wordsmith and a dramatist. “Closer” is a treat for the cultivated palate (and a good ride for audiences who want to see how drama and concern for character is generated). The play has the potential to be exhilarating, and Campbell and company, particularly Joshua L Browns and Kirsten Quinn, bring it to a thrilling boil that makes Marber’s drama come viscerally alive and that makes the last scenes of the play all the more moving, especially when you consider how incompletely people might know the ones they love.

“Closer” begins in an emergency room at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, a stone’s throw from Postman’s Park, a bit of greenery wedged between St. Bart’s and the London Wall. The outstanding feature of Postman’s Park is the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice, a set of plates commemorating people who died while rescuing others, and incidentally, a site of increased interest after “Closer” opened in London in 1997.

Dan, ironically an obit writer for a London daily, goes to the rescue of Alice who has been hit by a cab while aimlessly crossing a street, cutting her leg in the process. Marber’s first bit of bright badinage happens in that waiting room and go through a cat-and-mouse game of getting to know one another. Coincidentally, Dan and Alice, who are destined to pair after their chance meeting, encounter Larry, a doctor who Dan stops to look at Alice’s leg. Larry pronounces all well (although I think he should have at least washed the wound, if not by Marber’s direction, then by Campbell’s, by taking a disinfectant wipe out of pocket and doing some first aid) and goes off to his rounds as a staff dermatologist.

Alice has come to London from New York. She has had a difficult life that she survived by a talent for being on the scuffle and from relatively lucrative earnings she gets as a “dancer” in a West End strip club. Dan, who has always wanted to be a novelist and who is aware why one gets assigned to obit desks, writes and sells a book based on Alice’s experiences. During a photo shoot for its back cover, he meets Anna, who has been assigned to provide the picture.

In spite of having lived with Alice for two years, Dan is quite attracted to, quite attentive towards, and quite flirtatious with Anna, a recent divorcée who at first resists but obviously enjoys Dan’s wooing.

Dan and Anna tryst for a year before Alice intuits their dalliance. Meanwhile, Dan, who enjoys being mischievous, pretends to be Anna on a chat site for people seeking dates. He baits a woefully gullible Larry into a blind meeting with Anna at the London Aquarium, where Dan knows she is likely to be.

Combinations and permutations take over here, and Larry is dating Anna while Dan maintains his affair with her, and Alice is momentarily thinking all is well with her and Dan and that if Dan’s book is successful, she may be able to give up stripping. You see the complications, but Marber’s genius is in setting up the motivations and keeping all less tawdry than such a jigsawed arrangement would usually seem. Campbell helps by presenting Marber’s characters without judgment. letting them exist fully in their roles and giving the audience sway to wonder, care, or talk about matters he and Marber  offer matter-of-factly and at face value.

Anna and Dan have genuine decisions to make as Larry insinuates deeper and deeper into Anna’s life and overall regard. Dan wants things to remain status quo and resents Larry as a rival, even as Anna reminds him that his toying with her computer brought Larry and her together.

The Luna production makes the most of many of these sequences. The scene in which Browns, as Larry, and Sam Henderson, as Dan, sit on adjacent high stools and write instant messages that appear on a screen behind them is hilarious, both because of Browns’s responses to receiving blatant overtures offering sex and Henderson’s glee at perpetrating his hoax, writing suggestive comments, and setting up Larry and Anna for a possible folly. Browns and Henderson may giggle or snigger, but neither says a word, and the silent sequence, in which the characters communicate solely by typing, is a sharp example of how to play a non-verbal scene effectively and entertainingly. It also coalesces Campbell’s production by making us a kind of participant in Dan’s fun. Our interaction takes our stake in the play beyond one of simply watching and listening.

A scene in a gallery where Anna is exhibiting her photo portraits, including ones of herself, Dan, Alice, and Larry, is well paced and well acted to bring everything to a proper boil. Here you see carefully arranged bits of perfidy about to be exposed and unraveled. The actors, particularly Henderson and Gina Martino, as Alice, are particularly adept at hiding or divining information, as is proper for each individual character to do at this climactic juncture in Marber’s story. Campbell has been deft once again by choosing photos of Quinn, Browns, Henderson, and Martino in character, so their pictures do add 1,000 words to the dialogue. The telling traits in the portraits make Anna and Campbell both look like geniuses.

Each actor has had a chance to impress before the gallery scene, Henderson and Quinn in the passage showing their meeting at Anna’s photo studio, Browns and Quinn in the sequence in which they are thrown awkwardly together at the Aquarium, but the four’s behavior at Anna’s exhibition speaks volume and changes the dynamic of the situation, especially as Alice has gotten to meet Anna’s significant other and surmises Dan may share Anna’s affections with Larry.

Marber keeps interest and tension going throughout his work. Kirsten Quinn personifies the adult, confident character, Anna, that gives “Closer” its backbone while Joshua L. Browns provides contrast by keeping Larry a relative innocent who only picks up the others’ game as his caring for Anna, and eventually his pride, compel him to continue to play it. Sam Henderson makes Dan an unscrupulous romantic who redeems his playing with people’s lives via his charm and his ability to succinctly label a situation for what it is, calling a spade a spade, if you will. Gina Martino’s Alice takes on intensity as Campbell’s production develops. Alice is always clear and unapologetic about how she survives and makes her living. As she matures, Martino shows more you about her inclinations and her true instincts as one who must fend for herself.

For all of Marber’s gifts and Campbell’s talent, I feared “Closer” would not play as vibrantly as it can while watching the opening scene between Dan and Alice.

The scene was too inert, like the dialogue in a television police drama in which all of the actors speak in monotone. I couldn’t always hear or understand Martino — and I was on the first row — and I thought Henderson gave little expression to his lines.

Thanks to Marber, those lines come through, and you glean the wit and savvy in them. Henderson may not play the joke, but it’s so good, you hear it anyhow.

I worried that “Closer” would remain at a surface level. Neither of the characters seemed to materialize as people above the dialogue. Browns’s brief intrusion as the doctor Dan calls to Anna’s attention provides the one burst of energy in the scene. He changes the tone and relieves the laconic, expressionless approach to Marber’s words. Dan’s flirtatiousness comes across, but Marber’s lines are more appreciated for their own sake than from the way they are spoken.

Matters improve as Quinn dominates the next scene as Anna. From the beginning, you see the sharpness in Anna’s character. You may not be aware of her skill as a photographer, but Quinn lets your realize she is a keenly discerning woman whose experience in marriage have made her appreciate and value her independence. Quinn’s Anna provides a depth of field, a perspective, than was missing the first scene.

Luna’s “Closer” builds up strength after that, lots of it. Henderson remains subdued to a point, letting merriment in his eyes tell Dan’s story while never becoming totally animated as the character, as or seeming as if he lived in Dan’s skin. Browns and Quinn remain consistent, which is both cases is good. Browns is totally believable as a man who fumbles awkwardly at first but becomes more aware and wiser as the play develops. To Browns’s credit, you always see a hint of the naïve Larry in his character, even during an excellent scene between him and Martino in which Larry purchases Anna’s services at the strip club she works in after her latest breakup with Dan. Quinn stays the course. She starts out strong, and she remains strong while skillfully showing how Anna’s sense of realism and proportion tempers her romanticism and lust for Dan.

The silent scene with Dan and Larry at their computers propels Luna’s “Closer” to full strength, from which it never shies away. On the contrary, Campbell’s production builds exponentially in interest and intensity after that. Martino, in particular, grows,  becoming more comfortable and more challenged as the more realized Alice, one who has established a history with Dan and the audience, and not one who has to continually act as the waif as she satisfies her curiosity about this unpredictable man who whisked her from harm’s way and into hospital for treatment.

Once we arrive at the scene depicting Anna’s opening, Martino is audible and shows a knack for giving her lines color. She is extraordinary in the scene in which Larry taunts and is taunted by Alice in the strip club. Martino, Browns, Campbell, and lighting designer Ben Levan all contribute to the power and perspective of that sequence, a gem that should be recorded for use in acting schools and scene studies.

Kirsten Quinn could relax in her role as the most reasonable, most self-realized, and least affected of the four lovers. Instead, she increases Anna’s edge and shows how the character gains the perspective and self-control that are the result of intelligence and her ability to compartmentalize and keep things, even eventually emotion, in their place. Quinn’s confrontations with Henderson, as Dan, take on a competitive cast while her dealings with Larry are more tender, if equally direct. Quinn’s Anna even finds the right tone for dealing with Alice, whom Anna begins to regard as a daughter of sorts.

It is always wonderful when “smart” takes control in the theater. Patrick Marber’s smartness is evident from some of Dan’s first responses to Alice’s comments and revelations. Gregory Scott Campbell’s smartness is seen in the way he lets “Closer” build, his knack for staging complexity without lapsing into complication or confusion, and his sense that Marber has laid such complete dramatic groundwork, one doesn’t have to work hard to mine the intensity In “Closer.” He just has to help his actors find the freedom to play Marber as written and have some attitude towards their characters.

All of this Campbell does remarkably. Marber, “Closer,” and the audience is served.

This is easier said than done. I have seen productions of “Closer” that fail because directors have softened characters or because they have taken a moralistic, disapproving tone to all that happens, turning “Closer” into a tawdry escapade instead of a look at a mature entanglement. Campbell avoids all of these pitfalls. He has strives for emotional honesty in light of all the chicanery the characters in “Closer” might perpetrate, especially Dan and Alice. By doing so, he and his cast have entertain the Luna audience grandly and show why Patrick Marber and “Closer” rate more attention as we think about English-speaking theater of the last 20 years.

“Closer” runs through Saturday, February 7, at the Luna Theater, 620 S. 8th Street (8th & Kater Streets), in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. A 7 p.m. performance is scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 5. The Sunday show on Feb. 1 is set for 6 p.m. No matinee will be performed that day. Tickets range from $25 to $20 with discounts for adults younger than 30 and for people in the theater industry. They can be obtained by calling 215-704-0033 or by visiting www.lunatheater.org.

 

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