It used to be that the easiest thing for a playwright was to get all sentimental. Love, arriving in the happy ending, would conquer all.
But now, sentiment is a sin. The easy way out is black despair. But is it any more truthful than the feel-good versions it has replaced?
Patrick Marber's "Closer" suggests that it isn't. In this play about sex and relationships, the one thing that cannot be admitted is the possibility of happiness.
"Closer" comes from the British National Theater in London, where it won all the major awards for Best Play last year. It's not hard to see why.
The play is slick, skillful and fashionably bleak. Under Marber's impressive direction, it has a confidence and coherence that place it well above the average comedy of modern manners.
Marber's dialogue is sharp and witty. He wrings, at times, a surreal black humor from the most terrible situations. Taking two men and two women, he works through the variations of their mutual loves and loathings, attractions and betrayals, with extraordinary assurance.
First, there is the fragile, waif-like Alice, falling for Dan, a shy young man who writes obituaries for a newspaper. For a time, he takes over her life, writing a novel in which she is the central character.
Then he falls at first sight for Anna, a beautiful photographer. She, in turn, marries Larry, a dermatologist. And from then on, it's a game of pass-the-lover. Anna betrays Larry with Dan. Dan betrays Alice with Anna. Larry takes up with Alice. And on and on.
All of this is done with energy and ingenuity. But after a while, it gets hard to care about the outcome of a merely mathematical game. For the play lacks a basic ingredient: a sense that things might have been different. Drama is about choices, turning points, mistakes. "Closer" doesn't have any.
Toward the end of the play, Anna and Alice actually discuss this, and agree that they chose their fatal attractions. But the problem is that we didn't see this happening at the time.
In order to do so, we would have to believe that these people had possibilities one of them being that they might actually love each other. And this Marber seems unable to imagine.
Without it, it is difficult even for the stellar cast to achieve any real depth of emotion.
Each of the actors creates a completely convincing character. Natasha Richardson is elegant as Anna, Rupert Graves charming as Dan, Anna Friel appealing as Alice and Ciaran Hinds volcanic as Larry.
But the script gives none of them the room to make those characters change and grow before our eyes; Marber is too intent on easy pessimism to allow that to happen.
In the end, "Closer" is too satisfied with its own dark vision to risk any real emotion. That makes it ultimately as cold and self-absorbed as its characters.
"Closer" is a smart, sexy and sublimely funny play about desire and love and the painful ways these two urges are not always in synch. Patrick Marber's 1997 London comedy hit is getting a dream production at the Music Box Theater.
Directed with edge and tension by Marber himself, the crisp cast consists of Natasha Richardson as photographer Anna, Anna Friel as stripper Alice, Rupert Graves as obituary writer Dan and Ciaran Hinds as dermatologist Larry.
The drolly minimalist sets by Vicki Mortimer are practically characters in themselves.
This is Marber's second play. His first, ''Dealer's Choice,'' about gamblers, showed, in the rhythms of its talk and its obsession with power games, the influence of David Mamet.
''Closer,'' too, is Mametian - at least in the way its male characters treat sex as power. There's a flavor, also, of Paul Schrader, writer of ''Taxi Driver'' and ''Raging Bull,'' in the insistence by the men that the women reveal details of sexual encounters.
But, at least in the first act, Marber has softened the Mamet notes with a wit, warmth and wisdom all his own. This is a play of powerful emotional accuracy; anyone who's ever been in a relationship will find himself (and maybe herself) laughing with recognition.
In its sharp savvy about the ways of desire, ''Closer'' is closer to Schnitzler than to the hollow and nasty ''The Blue Room'' by David Hare, which called itself an adaptation of Schnitzler's ''La Ronde.''
No bottoms are bared in ''Closer,'' just hearts - and that's infinitely more shocking.
Anna Friel bursts over the Broadway sky like a bombshell as Alice, a feral young waif full of street sass and mystery. Flirtatious, pert, pretty and boyish-looking (she has a very funny line about men's attraction to boyish women, but, like 99 percent of the play, it's unquotable here), Friel's Alice is both available and elusive, an odd creature who has an odd penchant for getting into motor accidents.
I don't buy all the secrets Marber piles on the character of Alice, but Friel, who was seen on PBS in ''Our Mutual Friend,'' is never less than magnetic.
Rupert Graves, who's been in a bunch of E.M. Forster adaptations, is masterful and perversely likable as the selfish, seductive Dan.
In the way of bright London guys, Dan can articulate his lusts and rationalize his betrayals with self-deprecating charm and sweetness.
Alice and Dan meet cute: He takes her to a hospital when she's hit by a cab. The doctor at the hospital is Larry, played by Ciaran Hinds as a simple, open, vulnerable, working-class man, in a way an eternal victim of others' cunning but blessed with a gutsy survivor's vigor.
Bellowing like a shot elephant through his gash of a mouth, Hinds bravely presents Larry's pain unmediated by irony.
The jacket photo for Dan's novel is being taken by Anna, who, though he's involved with Alice and though he's sort of set her up with Larry, he callously pursues.
Natasha Richardson's Anna has a sort of sad wariness about her, as if expecting life (or rather men) to break her heart.
But Anna is also a toughly hilarious cookie, and Richardson, tossing that blond mane, is mistress of the surprised pause, of the ironic silence.
When the paranoid Alice asks Anna if she's stolen Dan's soul, Anna, after a dry beat, says, ''Do you want some tea?'' Richardson's is a quiet but heart-breaking turn.
Anna and Larry meet cute, too, in an aquarium. They've been duped by Dan in an ingeniously comic and completely silent scene where the two men are on a sex line.
Dan pretends to be a horny female slut; Larry is taken in; the stage is dominated by a big blue screen, whereon the manipulator and the manipulated create sex language.
It's a clever allegory, in miniature, of play-writing itself.
''All the language is old, there are no new words,'' Dan says in a scene in which Dan and Anna are leaving their lovers for each other, putting the two parallel events in the same space. The couples intermingle without noticing the other.
Later, as the Dan-Anna couple is dissolving, Marber plays games with time. But these Ayckbourn-like tricks are not the play's strengths, which lie rather in sex-war insights such as Larry's ''You don't understand the territory because you are the territory,'' and Anna's sensationally insightful explanation of the difference between women's and men's emotional ''baggage.''
Marber is still growing as a writer, but he has a voice - one that's a pleasure to tune in to.
What is this thing called love? Cole Porter's famous question resonates throughout ''Closer,'' Patrick Marber's bleak, chic study of the laws of attraction in contemporary London. But the answers, such as they are, aren't anything you would set to a lilting melody.
This stark four-character work, which opened last night at the Music Box Theater under Mr. Marber's direction, is more like an up-tempo funeral march than a wistful ballad. As one of its characters notes grimly, ''Everything our parents told us was good for us will kill us -- sun, milk, meat -- love.'' Mr. Marber, as you may have gathered, is a dramatist to make Racine, the classic chronicler of fatal passion, seem like an optimist.
''Closer'' is the latest in a series of anti-romantic comedies from England about the joylessness of sex, works that include David Hare's ''Blue Room'' and Mark Ravenhill's ''Shopping and . . .'' By now you probably know the formula, which has also become a commonplace in hip American movies like ''The Company of Men'' and ''Happiness'': Boy meets girl, boy gets (that's a euphemism) girl, and everybody loses all around. Love, it turns out, does mean having to say you're sorry, not to mention ''ouch!,'' again and again.
Mr. Marber's play is a step up from ''The Blue Room,'' which had the emotional temperature of a frozen cod. There's an invigorating anger about ''Closer,'' an enraged sense of helplessness beneath its cynicism. Mr. Marber has written some gleaming, sharp-edged dialogue, and as a dramatist he's a meticulous architect, somewhat in the manner of Yasmina Reza (of the abidingly popular ''Art''), with every scene and symbol clicking neatly into place.
Yet there's an oddly distanced quality about ''Closer,'' or at least this incarnation of it, that turns its careful fuguelike structure and echoing metaphors against it. Friends of mine who saw it in London, where it was produced at the Royal National Theater before transferring for a healthy West End run, describe it as a lacerating experience.
That definitely is not the case here, even though the show has the same director and design team as in London and features a first-class cast led by Natasha Richardson. You get the play's point, no question about that; but you don't feel the pain.
And without that visceral connection between the characters and the audience, ''Closer'' starts to seem like a thematic connect-the-dots game, or an algebraic equation for the pathology of desire.
Practically every element in ''Closer'' comes stamped with a seal of Significance. Start with the professions of the four characters. There's Alice (Anna Friel), a self-described waif who works as a performer in strip clubs; Dan (Rupert Graves), an unsuccessful novelist and a writer of newspaper obituaries; Larry (Ciaran Hinds), the oldest of the quartet, a dermatologist, and Anna (Ms. Richardson), a photographer who specializes, she says, in portraits of strangers.
There you have flesh and the way of all flesh, represented by the men. (''Our flesh is ferocious, our bodies will kill us, our bones will outlive us,'' says Larry.) The catalytic gloss of fantasy and image is provided by the women's work.
That work says everything about how love operates in ''Closer'': its basis in superficial perception and its essential loneliness. As the four characters keep switching partners in a shifting, internecine quadrangle, none of them can really account for their obsessions with one another, except with chimerical reasons.
''You give us imagery,'' says a drunken Larry about women to Alice. ''And we do with it what we will.'' Alice in turn sums up men with this observation: ''They love the way we make them feel, but not 'us.' They love dreams.''
The arbitrariness of love and its willful self-delusions aren't new ideas, of course. Mr. Marber can give them a chilling contemporary spin, however, most notably in a devastatingly witty scene in which Dan and Larry have sex on the Internet, with Dan pretending to be Anna. Their typed-out exchange is projected onto a large blue screen, and Dan's typographical rendering of orgasm is priceless. That's the essence of ''Closer'' right there: the primal, all-too-conventional fantasies of two men, one a manipulator and the other a dupe, bouncing off each other in cyberspace.
Vicki Mortimer's grimly sterile setting picks up on, rather heavily, the work's central concepts. The wall of a London memorial park, with plaques commemorating ordinary people who died saving others, is always in view, a signpost to the graves that await us all.
There are also recurrent images of women behind glass, from the immense portrait Anna takes of Alice for a gallery exhibition to the life-size girl doll in a Victorian museum. The club in which Alice dances is another variation on this theme, since the customers are never allowed to touch the performers, prompting Larry to scream, ''What do you have to do to get a bit of intimacy around here?''
This is not subtle stuff. But because ''Closer'' is so tightly wound, and because Mr. Marber's dialogue has such rhythmic insistence, you could imagine the play hypnotizing you under the right circumstances. Here, unfortunately, the actors themselves seem to be presented under glass, and while each of them has moments, they only rarely shake off their status as exhibits A, B, C and D.
This is partly because Mr. Marber's clinical staging often finds the performers speaking in glacial profile with considerable distance between them. It also has much to do with the casting, particularly that of Ms. Richardson, who must serve as the work's emotional ballast. This splendid actress, who won a Tony last year for ''Cabaret,'' is unfailingly graceful, and she has never been more luminous than here.
And therein lies the rub. Anna is meant to be someone who has been run through the sexual mill one time too many, bruised and wary but still pathetically hopeful. Ms. Richardson registers as less a wounded survivor than a strong, untarnishable transcender of the sordidness around her.
She gives some exquisite line readings, for example when Anna is baited into savagery during a sexual interrogation by Larry, and she has a delicate comic timing. Yet you never despair over Anna's future, as you did with Ms. Richardson's Sally Bowles in ''Cabaret,'' and that is a crucial lack.
Similarly, Ms. Friel gives a deft and often touching performance, filled with responsive shadings. But she comes across a bit too well bred for her loose-cannon character, who is both the toughest and most vulnerable of the four and the one who lives closest to the edge. This, after all, is a woman who is said to have urinated on the carpet to capture a lover's attention, and it's hard to imagine Ms. Friel's Alice ever doing such a thing. The performance generates the character's pathos but not her dangerousness.
The male characters, like those in Neil LaBute's similarly themed movies, are less rewarding roles. They're jerks, eternal adolescents reflexively given to cruelty. Mr. Hinds, the only holdover from the original London cast, and Mr. Graves play them unshirkingly, however. Mr. Graves, whose Dan is bad faith with a trendy haircut, turns in the evening's most fully integrated performance.
Ultimately, for ''Closer'' to scorch as it should, you must feel that these people are capable of seriously damaging one another. The play begins with the vision of a bleeding wound on Alice's leg, and much is made of scar imagery throughout.
Still, despite the many excoriating exchanges among the characters, you only fitfully believe in their capacity to be hurt, and for the most part you don't care whether they are or not. ''Closer'' is all too close to Alice's description of Anna's portraits: ''a bunch of sad strangers photographed beautifully.''
The increasing -- and to some degree dismaying -- infantilization of Broadway finds a potent antidote in Patrick Marber's "Closer," a brilliant and bracingly adult new play from London (where else?) that lights a scorching fire under this lukewarm theater season. Directed with propulsive rhythm by the author himself, and acted by an incomparable quartet of performers, "Closer" is both bruising and beautiful, shatteringly funny and devastatingly sad. It feels ripped from the heart, an organ memorably described here as looking like "a fist wrapped in blood," and it leaves a lasting scar there.
Marber has joked that he didn't realize until he'd finished the play that he had written "Private Lives," and indeed in its prickly wit and essential structure -- two contemporary couples who switch partners more than once -- "Closer" recalls that Noel Coward classic. But it's Coward laced with a nihilistic chill that derives from Samuel Beckett.
Love's inevitable fading is the tragic subject of the play, but it's also a symbol of the greater inevitability of death. Pleading for love, a character makes the connection with the brutal bluntness that marks all the emotional exchanges in the play: "I need you. I can't think ... I can't breathe. We are going to die."
Death and sex, those two great equalizers, are everywhere in "Closer." Dan (Rupert Graves) is an obituary writer and aspiring novelist who meets the younger Alice (Anna Friel) when she steps in front of a taxicab -- willingly, it is implied, although her wry mischievousness at the hospital, where he has escorted her, is plenty lively.
The play then skips forward more than a year (its timeframe is millennial: life is the blink of an eye). Alice and Dan are a couple, and Anna (Natasha Richardson), a divorced and world-weary photographer, is snapping Dan for a book jacket. The sexual attraction between them is instant, but Anna resists. "I'm not a thief," she tells Alice, who arrives to pick up Dan and senses the dangerous electricity in the room.
The fourth character in the play is a dermatologist named Larry (Ciaran Hinds). It was Larry who treated Alice's injured leg at the hospital, but he enters the play's sexual equation only by cyberchance, when Dan, posing as a woman named Anna in an Internet chat room (in one of the play's crudest and funniest scenes), suggests a meeting at which the real Anna happens to turn up.
Soon Anna and Larry are united, but in the searing final minutes of act one, the lives of all four characters are turned inside out in a masterfully directed scene that brings the subterranean ache of the play into wounding bloom.
Dan coolly tells Alice that he and Anna are in love, and the same information is prised out of a deeply hurting Anna by Larry. From here unfolds an elegantly choreographed tale of love, jealousy, pain and revenge that leaves all the characters wounded and one dead.
Advance press has hyped the play's sometimes startling sexual frankness, but there's nothing coarse or showy about Marber's use of explicit dialogue (only Alice's sometime profession as an upscale stripper feels gimmicky). When Larry humiliates Anna by demanding to know the sexual details of her alliance with Dan, it's the brutality of the feeling, not the words themselves, that sears.
Indeed the play's dialogue has a raw emotionality rarely heard in art or life. It cuts like broken glass, rending flesh with every syllable, and is full of bitter, intelligent, unvarnished truth. When Alice asks why Dan is leaving her for Anna, he replies, "Because she doesn't need me," and, later, "Because I'm selfish and I think I'll be happier with her." Have the tortured dynamics of love and need ever been laid bare as honestly onstage as they are here?
Marber's cast is more than up to the task of bringing the needed nuances to this extraordinarily artful play's complexities (there is not an extraneous line in it, and few are without coolly resonant meaning). Richardson's casual radiance and her slow-burning way with the play's wryest passages -- particularly a monologue about men's and women's emotional baggage -- round out the essential goodness of her character.
Graves' shaggy good looks and puppy-dog eyes are perfect for Dan, who is as deeply needy as he is careless of others' needs. Hinds, the only member of the cast from the original London production, has a Scottish accent that defines his character as an outsider, and a heavy, brooding presence that makes his emotional vulnerability all the more painful.
But it's the delicate, exquisitely lovely Friel who is the discovery here. Her Alice is both the nihilistic core of the play and its tender center, and the paradoxical mixture of toughness and fragility that Friel brings to it are essential to the play's deepest truths. It's a star-making performance.
The design team, too, provides stylistic details that amplify the play's ideas. Vicky Mortimer's set, which recalls the work of artist Christian Boltanski, is perfectly detailed, right down to the choice of houseplants for decorative effect: cactuses only! Hugh Vanstone's lighting has chilly dramatic flair and Paddy Cunneen's music adds haunting atmosphere.
Despite the stylishly seductive package and charismatic performances, "Closer" is often hard to watch; its truths are painful, its honesty makes you wince. In fact a telling irony of the play concerns the bitter fact that honesty is as brutal as deception when it comes to matters of the heart. There is no easy way out. "I don't want to lie and I can't tell the truth, so it's over," as one departing lover says -- with utter despair -- to another.
It's Dan's desperate need to know the truth of Anna's and Alice's feelings -- both sexual and emotional -- that drives the play to its dark conclusion. But the quest is futile. The play's sad message is that the truth of the heart is ever-changing, and tainted by other equally liquid emotions: jealousy, pride, selfishness, lust. Love's a paltry, unreliable, painful thing, Marber's bleakly beautiful play tells us -- how grim and how funny, then, that it is all we have to ward off the terrors of life and death.