Theater review: ‘Closer’ offers glimpse of four lost souls in motion

Theater review: ‘Closer’ offers glimpse of four lost souls in motion

Jay Pyette

January 26, 2010, by Joe Nickell, Missoulian

Toward the beginning of the Montana Actors’ Theatre production of Patrick Marber’s play, “Closer,” a grainy video appears on a screen behind the stage, of that classic desktop curiosity known as a Newton’s Cradle. Five steel balls hang in a row; when a ball at one end swings into contact with the row, the ball at the opposite end of the row is propelled away – a simple demonstration of Newton’s Third Law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

It’s an apt but ultimately imprecise metaphor for the way that Marber’s four characters interact: At least those steel balls eventually stop banging each other and settle into stasis.

The pendulous trajectory of this cynical drama of interwoven infidelities becomes clear almost from the beginning, when Alice, a cheeky coquette who has just nearly been run down while crossing the street, begins to flirt with the man who pulled her off the pavement and brought her to the hospital.

“Why didn’t you look?” he asks.

“I never look where I’m going,” she shrugs under a pink wig that we soon learn hides more than her natural hair.

Her savior, Dan, is an obituary writer looking to pump new life into his career. He finds it in Alice, whose past as a stripper becomes the subject of his first book. In the process, the two become lovers.

All of that happens in the flash of darkness between scenes. By the time we see Dan again, he’s already turning his focus toward a new woman, Anna, a photographer whose clinical work ethic is quickly dismantled with a kiss. Then along comes Larry, a dermatologist drawn into the story when Dan plays a prank on him in an Internet sex chat room.

Writing about the dead, viewing the world through a lens, treating the skin, baring the flesh: Unfortunately, the nature of these four people’s jobs are as deep as we come to understand their inner motives. All claim to want love; and through the course of the drama, they seek it by recombining amongst themselves, pushing away or being pushed, offering better proofs of Newton’s Third Law than that Newton’s Cradle.

In short, Marber’s play is a lousy choice for a first date. And in the end, instead of redemption, we learn that even some of the things we thought we knew weren’t actually true.

Fortunately, there’s nothing deceptive about Marber’s razor-sharp dialogue, which is peppered with uncomfortable truths and spiced with often graphically sexual language (don’t bring the kids). And there’s plenty to like once this local production finds its groove.

Last Friday’s performance began at a slow simmer, with pauses and kisses lingering a bit long. But by the end of the first act, when the tension between Anna and Larry explodes into a breathtakingly graphic argument about sex, there was little that could stop the blind momentum of these four lost souls.

Brandon Johnson – who recently played Brad in MAT’s production of “The Rocky Horror Show” – brings an earnest intensity to the buttoned-down role of Dan, his rapier gaze piercing even Anna’s thick emotional armor. To be sure, Kristen Beckmann’s Anna is no easy read, hiding her vulnerabilities behind a camera and an impenetrable placidity.

As Alice, Hannah Paton brings a brashness that’s as skimpy as her lingerie, revealing her underlying fragility at even the slightest breath of an ill breeze. Matt Warner’s poor (and often absent) Brit accent may tarnish the production’s verisimilitude; but in the end, he comes out seeming the most honest of the four, never wavering in his bullish bluster.

Together, they make a well-balanced quartet of emotionally imbalanced people that you’d probably rather not know much better by the end. “Try lying for a change,” Dan admonishes at one point: “It’s the currency of the world.”

Ironically, that’s about as close as “Closer” gets to truth, but it all feels uncomfortably real in this production.

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