The stage is softly aglow beneath deep red lights. Cigarette smoke wafts toward the audience. Viewers cannot help but feel like intruders as a scantily clad woman dances before an obviously emotional man. "Tell me something true," he implores. "Lying is the most fun a girl can have without taking her clothes off — but it's better if she is," she cheekily replies.
"Closer" — opening tonight at Production Workshop — begs the question: How well can people actually know their partner? Buried beneath the deceptions and secrets of relationships, one can never be sure who they are with and how far they are willing to go to discover the truth.
The exquisitely written play by Patrick Marber puts the intersecting lives of two couples under the audience's scrutiny. There is the vivaciously vulnerable Alice (Nora Rothman '13), sharp Anna (Madison Utendahl '13), self-absorbed Dan (Justin Kuritzkes '12) and insecure Larry (Sam Barasch '12). Together, they experience extreme circumstances of love, lust, rejection and loss over the course of several years in London.
"The exciting thing about theater," said Director Sean Patrick McGowan '12, "is that it shows you people at their darkest, most vulnerable … and yet shows you that that's you up there."
The play puts its characters in extreme situations, but they never lose their humanity — audience members are sucked into the plot as twists and turns arise after every dimming of the lights. The improbability of the characters' actions only heightens the anticipation and involvement of the audience in the play itself. As McGowan aptly said, "you get lost" in the play's captivating storyline.
"Closer" opens with Dan and Alice meeting on the streets of London after Alice is struck by a cab. The two tease and flirt: "I noticed your leg was bleeding," Dan says. "Did you notice my legs?" Alice replies.
More than a year later, Anna is photographing Dan for the cover of his book, which tells Alice's life story — the two have been together since that day. Despite his commitment to Alice, Dan finds himself largely attracted to Anna. She snubs his attentions, responding to his question if she would like children one day with a deadpanned, "Yes, but not today." But it is clear that Dan will not take no for an answer.
Irked by her denial, Dan poses as Anna in an internet chatroom where he meets Larry. The two exchange a sexually charged conversation, ending with a planned meeting at the aquarium the following day. By chance, Anna is there, and the two embark on a romantic relationship.
Four months later, all of the characters are together to celebrate the opening of Anna's photo exhibition — a portrait collection of strangers. Dan persists in his pursuit of Anna while Alice and Larry share a flirtatious moment. The love-rhombus takes shape.
The actors come together in each scene to provide memorable, addicting performances, with the ladies of the night stealing the show from their male counterparts.
Utendahl's Anna is particularly impressive — her execution of the script is impeccable, with just the right amount of bite to her bark as she parries with her contending suitors. The emotions she exudes are realistic — at one point the audience can clearly see the tears in her eyes (true emotion her co-stars sometimes lack) — and she is able to switch back and forth with ease from one charged conversation to the next.
Rothman also puts in a strong performance as Alice, portraying her character with just the right mix of strength and vulnerability to keep the audience on bated breath as they anticipate her next move.
The male actors are also strong but pale in comparison to their female partners. Kuritzkes' Dan doesn't ensnare audiences as much as he should. Barasch's Larry starts off slow in the first act but finishes the night with several spectacular scenes in the second.
The lighting enhances the show to no end — telling the story as well as the script does. Subtle transitions in color transport the audience to various locations without the set ever changing. The lights are also rigged to go off concurrently with Anna's snapshots, a fun, impressive addition.
The set itself acts as a museum of the character's personal effects, with props placed strategically on platforms and stands around the main raised stage. Actors are also stage hands, picking up objects and carrying them into the scene with ease, transforming each thing's meaning as the play progresses. The staging area also serves as the backstage, with actors changing costumes and waiting for their cues right before the audiences' eyes. The effect is a good one. The audience feels completely involved in the action.
"Closer" is a marvelous play on its own — the script is witty and intricate in its exploration of the human psyche. McGowan's production is well-executed, rounded out by a creative set and lighting and fantastic acting — audience members will be drawn in closer and closer with each line.
* * * *
(four of five stars)
Twist and turns know no bounds in this enthralling, well-acted drama.