by Christopher Soden

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday April 1, 2009


It's easy to understand when Patrick Marber's Closer (currently playing at Enter Stage Left) is compared to Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf ?"or Jules Feiffer's "Carnal Knowledge," but somehow it feels more ferocious, more harrowing, and all the more ironic as the four characters involved : Alice, Anna, Dan and Larry don't seem especially vindictive or damaged. In other words, none of them fall at one extreme or the other along the continuum of romantic sins : needy, egotistical, alienated, obsessive. All four seem disconcertingly normal in light of the pain they inflict, which doesn't seem exceptional when we are dealing in the realms of love, sex and intense attraction. Intense longing.

And yet the profound exposure, the excruciating revelations, the primitive groping for comfort even as they disconnect feels worse (and more authentic) then anything I've experienced at the theater in a very long time. If the dialogue in "Closer" is heightened, it isn't obvious, and it lacks the fierce giddiness of "Virginia Woolf" but the power of witnessing and identifying with the men and women as they plummet and collapse and ache and vainly try to manage their demons is unmistakable. It's marvelous and ruthless.

"Closer" begins in a hospital waiting room where Dan (Chad Halbrook) has brought Alice after she has a rough brush at an intersection. Their shyness and tentative flirting is affecting, and certainly Marber is meticulous in pacing the rhythm of the dance here. And throughout the play. The topic arises of a monument at Postman's Park, dedicated to those who died while saving the lives of others, and this is where the play will end, spelling out the core conflict boiling and brewing from the maw of the play's dedicated engine. In the delicate, seemingly innocuous world of "romance," self-protection is vital and altruism possibly fatal. The closer the characters get the more they push each other away. Dan, Larry, Alice and Anna try to follow their hearts and sexual imperatives without being complete, selfish shits, without clobbering their partners or drowning in martyrdom. But clobbered they are and martyrs they create. Marber practically makes a case for promiscuity. If you think tomcatting is bad (he seems to say) try head over heels. Then you're truly fucked.

Marber practically makes a case for promiscuity. If you think tomcatting is bad (he seems to say) try head over heels. Then you're truly fucked.

Two instances that stand out from the sequence of quietly combustible episodes are between Larry and Anna, and much later, between Dan and Alice. Curiously the infidelities seem to be the least of it. When Anna (Jessica Layman) miserably confesses to Larry (Chad Cline) he interrogates her, demanding she disclose every lurid detail of the affair. His demeanor seems perverse, on some level he must realize she's not leaving because his penis is too short, or he lacks technique, but his neurotic need for answers spurs this ritual of self-loathing and condemnation. In short, he drags the particulars from her then calls her a whore. Hey. All the world loves a lover.

In another, comparable, situation, Alice (Samantha Chancellor) is about to take she and Dan off on holiday together. This, after dowsing one another's spirits and slowly, carefully restoring the flame. Dan, who cannot bear (it seems) to let go of the past and bask in the grace of reciprocation, begins to confront Alice about a supposed affair that happened while they were apart. It's not so much that he won't take her word, as he seems to be looking for an excuse to bail. Picking up on his motives, Alice ends the relationship before he can, which under the circumstances, seems appropriate. And yet the awful, aching despair, the sense that no answer is the right answer, the dread that for all of us flawed humans, there is no way to love well or responsibly, just goes on and on. If you sign on for the ecstasy (which we see precious little of) sooner or later the torture will gouge you like a cobra.

There's a curious undercurrent pulsing through the plot of this primarily character-driven drama. In the third scene we watch as Dan baits Larry by seducing him on the Internet while pretending to be female. Cheesy music most often used to punctuate porn videos plays in the background, undercutting what otherwise might have been a darker, or at least more intriguing scene. Though I grant you, it has its comical side. Later, in the second act, when Larry and Dan speak directly to one another, Larry calls Dan a "cunt" and Dan expresses contrition for "taking" Anna away from him. I think all men, straight or gay, care more about each other's validation than they'd ever let on. But in the context of this piece it seems to me that Marber is raising some interpersonal issues that he then subsequently abandons. Do I think Dan and Larry are just burning with denied lust for one another? Not really. But Marber's playing at something here.

Whether or not you agree with the play's cynical, wounded, enraged ideas about love, I find it phenomenal and compelling. There's enough of what feels genuine and true that even if it comes from a sort of skewed accuracy, the devastation it wields demands our attention. This is the sort of theatre we talk about wistfully, when we consider what the theatre might and actually can do. The actors summon their raw courage and brilliance and jump into a minefield and achieve something nearly miraculous. The lines and characters and music of language and moods and exchanges and chemistry all converge into something dazzling and transcendent. Like channeling ghosts or singing down the moon. For Enter Stage Left's first show, Director Jason Folks, Samantha Chancellor, Chad Cline, Chad Halbrook and Jessica Layman et al have set the bar incredibly high.

Christopher Soden received his MFA in Poetry from Vermont College in 2005. He is a teacher, lecturer, actor, performer and playwright. In addition he writes film, theatre and literary critique. In his spare time he likes to read, cook, dine, do crossword puzzles, chill and nap.