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Sex, Lies, and Cyberspace

Broadway's nasty-talk season continues with Patrick Marber's Closer, about two pairs of deceptively honest lovers.

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Is it a coincidence? That just twelve days after The Blue Room closes, another friskily hyped British import washes ashore to take its place? Closer, which begins previews at the Music Box Theatre on March 9, also promises a glamorous cast (one fourth Natasha Richardson, one fourth Rupert Graves, one fourth Ciaran Hinds, one fourth Anna Friel) and, more important, delectable filth: Its best-publicized scene, cited endlessly in reviews and the copious literature of coming attractions, involves a cybersex encounter between its two male characters, who sit at individual terminals while their ribald dialogue pops up on a big screen behind them. One, pretending to be a woman, declares he has "epic tits," says he fantasizes about tending to strangers "like a cum-hungry bitch," and ends the scene by faking a virtual orgasm, pounding out a string of "oh-oh-oh"s and qwerty nonsense to show his rapture.

Closer, it should be noted, isn't nearly as shallow as The Blue Room, a mere slip of a play starring Nicole Kidman in a mere slip. It won its 34-year-old author, Patrick Marber, London's most prestigious awards, including the Critics' Circle, the Evening Standard, and the Olivier. But Closer does seem to invite the same lurid headlines, and like The Blue Room, it isn't nearly as bawdy as advertised. In fact, to American audiences, the most striking thing about Closer probably won't be its explicit language -- there really isn't all that much, aside from that brief cyber scene -- but the aggressive candor with which its characters discuss their sexual and romantic indiscretions. It's as if they've all come down with a case of lover's Tourette's.

Sample exchange between a married couple:

I slept with someone in New York. A whore. I'm sorry. Please don't leave me.

Why?

For sex. I wanted sex. I used a condom . . .

Was it . . . good?

. . . Yes.

In the context of the recent impeachment proceedings, such talk, and there's a lot of it, is almost unimaginable. It inflicts so much pain, it makes Clinton's lying seem virtuous. By disclosing what they truly think and feel, the characters of Closer seem familiar but also stylized: How many people really speak this way? Isn't the ability to euphemize what separates us from beasts?

"I'm a bit more repressed than the characters in the play," says Marber, "but I believe people would behave in this way. They just don't necessarily exist next door." His characters aren't your friends and neighbors, in other words -- or, for that matter, in Your Friends and Neighbors, a heartless movie to which Closer has sometimes been compared. (In fact, Closer made its debut in May 1997, long before Neil LaBute's film, and the play is much funnier and more forgiving at its core.) For all their emotional guerrilla tactics, it's also clear that Marber's characters deceive one another as much as they come clean; it's just that we don't see it. The play, which takes place over the course of three years, spotlights a series of pivotal moments in relationships -- which happen here to be literal moments of truth.

"On some level," muses Marber, "you could say that Closer is about love as a poker game. I'm obviously interested in the dynamic of power, the way people operate with and against each other, and how your best friend might be your worst enemy." The analogy makes sense. Marber's first and only other play, Dealer's Choice, is all about the interpersonal politics of gambling.

Patrick Marber has a pretty good poker face himself. While studying at Oxford, he would sneak away to the Golden Nugget on Shaftesbury Avenue in London and lose more money than he now cares to think about. Today, as he sips on a Coke at the Paramount (the butt of one of Closer's funniest jokes), he seems determined to remain as vague as smoke. "I disclaim this interview," he jokily says at one point. "There's always a deception in an interview," he adds at another. Still later: "You feel alive when you tell a lie. You lie to someone, you have a little secret."

So the question eventually arises: Does Marber lie to journalists? "Oh, yeah," he says, unexpectedly. "I've told the odd little lie." Such as . . . ? "I can't remember. I've been doing it for years. Everyone lies in interviews." He smiles and reaches for a piece of cheese. He's a nice-looking man with an open smile and several charming nervous habits, including the tendency to play with whatever scraps of paper are available to him -- napkins, empty sugar packets. "I've determined that from now on, I'm going to lie a bit more in interviews," he continues. "What I want to do is invent an alternative back story for my life."

The company of Closer, whom Marber is also directing, probably wouldn't find this admission terribly shocking. "Every time he gives me a note," says Hinds, the only cast holdover from the London production, "I say to him, 'You're cajoling me, you're seducing me. What am I to believe?' "

Marber grew up in a middle-class Jewish family in Wimbledon, near the tennis club -- at least, that's what he tells journalists. After graduating from Oxford in 1986, he tried for several years to be a stand-up comic, but he wasn't especially funny. "I was a very dark version of Pee-wee Herman," he says. "My routine was a bit absurd. It was stupid." He moved on to writing for television and radio, and in 1995, the Royal National Theatre gambled on Dealer's Choice. It paid off big-time, earning both great notices and profits. (The play also did well here, albeit on a more modest scale, at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1997.)

But with Closer, Marber earned himself comparisons to Harold Pinter. "I'm a newcomer with two plays," he marvels, "and yet I'm being treated as someone whose opinions are of value. I'm still developing a style -- I'm not a full-grown writer yet -- and as you've found out, my opinions are nonexistent, or they're of no value, because I'm a fledgling. I demand to be treated like a fledgling!"

At playwriting, perhaps. But in relationships, the subject so brutally examined in Closer, Marber appears to be excelling, which should give his fans some hope. The playwright dedicated the work to his girlfriend, an actress he has been seeing for three years. "It's weird," he says, "because I worked on this play, which is about the horrors of it all, but I couldn't be happier myself."


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