Patrick Marber's Closer is a sad, savvy, often funny play that casts a steely, unblinking gaze at the world of relationships and lets you come to your own conclusions. It is rather like that scar on young Alice's thigh: of a strange shape, clumsily made, and for which she and others offer various explanations, none of which may be true. But it is there, and something it betokens may never have healed.
There are four characters, sufficient for this wistful merry-go-round. Alice, who has heedlessly walked in front of a taxi, has had her leg injured just below that old scar. Dan, a young obituary writer, passing by, has brought her to the hospital. While they wait for a doctor to show up, they banter and fall in love. A middle-aged doctor, Larry, hurrying by, notices only because Alice is pretty, but, being a dermatologist, can offer only skin-deep comfort. Which is how most comfort is.
Time passes rapidly in Closer. After a considerable lapse, we are in the studio of the somewhat older Anna, a photographer taking pictures of Dan. It's for the book jacket of his forthcoming novel, the story of himself and Alice, with whom he is now living. Yet here he is instantly craving Anna, who, although seemingly aloof and even mildly sarcastic, is not unresponsive. Alice, arriving to pick up Dan, rightly suspects that there has been some hanky-panky.
The next scene takes place on the Internet, and is both visually and comedically highly stimulating, but that is as much as I can tell you about it. From here on, as several years go by, everyone ends up sexually and emotionally involved with everyone else, each trying vainly to get closer to the other. Marber tells his story in short, staccato scenes in which the unsaid talks as loudly as the said. The dialogue is almost entirely stichomythic, the occasional speech still not much longer than a few lines. There are frequent pauses, but not of the Pinteresque variety -- more like skipped heartbeats.
There are many ways of interpreting this play. Is it on the Anouilhesque theme of how innocence and the rare ability to love never goes unpunished in this world? Is it about how no relationship lasts, and how everyone ends up alone or with somebody else in a worse kind of aloneness? Or is it about the noose of time tightening around everyone's neck, closer and closer? Or is this the Eliotian theme about our not being able to bear very much reality, and that the truth ultimately kills? Early on, the obituarist Dan, asked by Alice, "Do you like it . . . in a dying business?" answers, "It's a living." And how is the loving business? Perpetually dying. But always only for one partner; there is no shared Liebestod.
Closer, this acutely observed, wise play, is directed by its author the way he has written it: with a scalpel. He has elicited a semi-abstract unit set from Vicki Mortimer that is adaptable through minimal changes to both the specifics and the ambiguities of each situation. Her costumes are similarly evocative, and Hugh Vanstone's lighting artfully fills in the elliptic scenery. Paddy Cunneen's music is brash and raw, like the emotions. And the acting is just fine.
Although Ciaran Hinds, as Larry, may be a bit excessively unwinning, he conveys well the weaknesses of a strong man. Rupert Graves gets the volatile, puppyish but nevertheless hurtful mischievousness of Dan perfectly, and Natasha Richardson splendidly balances coolness and passion, irony and pain. As for Alice: No one could capture the intermingled aggressiveness and vulnerability of youth with more empathy than Anna Friel. Closer does not merely hold your attention; it burrows into you.
True, we have three very fine American plays, rather unusually, currently on our boards (Wit, Side Man, and This Is Our Youth), but why is it that good straight plays come so much more readily from Britain? Is it tradition, education, culture, subsidies, more and cheaper theater, or what? Someone should investigate.