Guerrilla War Between the Sexes

Closer

I dare anyone who thinks movies and television come near to providing the thrill of top-drawer live theater to go see Closer, and not just because actress Jen Ryan spends part of Act Two wearing little more than a see-through mesh top. You can observe Jen's breasts, sure, but you can also watch her give one of the most powerful performances ever to come to life on a South Florida theater stage. Technically polished and emotionally courageous, her depiction of a young stripper is so inventive and raw that it's much more thrilling to look at her face than at the rest of her.

Indeed Ryan infuses her entire performance, not just this hot-button scene, with such exuberance that her GableStage debut nearly upstages the arrival of Closer, itself something to be celebrated. Patrick Marber's hit play won the Evening Standard, Time Out, London Critics Circle, and Laurence Olivier awards after its 1997 London opening. It then proceeded to a successful Broadway run that just ended this past August and is now receiving its first production outside New York at GableStage. In a region with a theater repertoire that often makes us feel further away from New York than we actually are, artistic director Joseph Adler's effort to bring us this contemporary drama is an extraordinary gift to theater fans that should not go unapplauded.

Closer may not be a play for the ages, but it's certainly a play of the moment. Marber's story of couples who unite, then dissolve, then dig emotional trenches around each other has reminded many people of film director Neil LaBute's searing movies Your Friends & Neighbors and In the Company of Men -- works in which the struggle for intimacy between men and women has been reduced to guerrilla warfare. The troops in this case are two couples: Alice, the stripper played by Ryan, and her boyfriend Dan, a newspaper obituary writer; and Anna, a photographer, who eventually marries Larry, a dermatologist.

This stripper gets under the audience's skin
This stripper gets under the audience's skin

Details

Written by Patrick Marber. Directed by Joseph Adler. With Sandra Ives, Jen Ryan, Bob Rogerson, and Paul Tei. Through December 19.
GableStage at the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables, 305-446-1119.

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If Larry's profession suggests his vulnerability to women who might actually get under his skin, Dan's job as an obituary writer seems to signal a dead-end attitude toward love. Dan is the most self-destructive of the quartet. Having first won Alice by taking her to the emergency room after she is hit by a car, he uses her as the subject matter of a novel he is writing. A few years later, he moves on to Anna, whom he meets when she takes the jacket photo for his book. Anna resists him at first, so he fixes her up with Larry, the doctor who treated Alice's injury in the ER several years earlier. The play occupies an almost claustrophobically close universe, one in which the same four people keep tripping over each other, but in no sense does this construct seem synthetic. Instead the effect is to imply that love might exist in a vacuum but not in a world fraught with other amorous possibilities.

The heart of Closer depicts the second meeting of Larry and Alice -- this time in the upscale strip joint where she works. (Marber wrote this scene first, he has said, and built the rest of the play around it.) Larry seeks refuge at the strip club after Anna leaves him for Dan. Although Alice is wearing a purple Lulu Brooks wig during her act, Larry recognizes her from the ER, and what ensues is verbal tug of war that underscores the power politics between men and women in strip clubs and, in Marber's view, everywhere else. Larry gives Alice a succession of dollar bills on the condition that she will reveal her true name. Each time, Alice says her name is Jane. Increasingly angry, Larry proffers $500 for Alice's real name, but she still insists it is Jane. Larry at last breaks down in tears, confesses his recent breakup, and entreats Alice to hold him. His desperation is pitiful, and so is Alice's assertion that, according to club policy, "We're not allowed to touch."

At the GableStage, where Adler directs with a keen intelligence, the play unfolds on Lyle Baskin's mouthwatering set, consisting mainly of several handsome gray scrims that move apart or come together to create performance spaces, some outfitted with a few pieces of furniture. The entire production design -- including Jeff Quinn's cinematic lighting, M. Tony Reimer's techno-pop sound, and Daniela Schwimmer's gray-, black-, and red-punctuated costumes -- is so thoughtful that it stands out, subtly enunciating the play's themes without calling undue attention to itself. In the play's showpiece scene, which involves an online sexual encounter between Larry and a person he thinks is a woman, the dialogue is reproduced for the audience to read on a gigantic scrim representing the computer screen of a chat-room participant.

It is Closer's human elements, however, that steer the drama. With his allusive title, Marber surely means to suggest that getting near to someone is dangerous, and for his characters it certainly is. Director Adler draws strong performances out of all his actors. Larry is played by the always-compelling Bob Rogerson and Dan by Paul Tei, a formidable presence. But it may be no coincidence that of the four, the men come off as more authentic, since it is their fates about which the playwright seems to care most. Sandra Ives, as Anna (the role played by Natasha Richardson on Broadway), turns in the least interesting performance, but then she is playing an adult woman and not a male fantasy. Marber spends less time plumbing her depths than those of Alice, who is something of the proverbial whore with a heart of gold, albeit an unhappy one. "I know what men want," Alice says in response to Dan's question about what it takes to be a good stripper. And what might that be? "You want me to come like a train."

In the many epic breakups that occur among these characters, Marber's gift for capturing the heart-wrenching despair of lost love is unnerving. "Please change your mind," begs Alice, as Dan prepares to walk out on her to go back to Anna. In explanation Dan asserts that he must hurt her "because I am selfish. Because I think I'll be happier with her." Alice backs down. "Will you make me some tea?" she finally asks, knowing by now that this is all she can demand of someone who doesn't love her anymore.

Just as intimacy is dangerous for Alice, Anna, Dan and Larry, getting close to these characters is a scary thing for us -- which is the way it's supposed to be in the theater from time to time. Here's hoping the rest of the GableStage season contains half as many chills.

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