What’s Love Got to Do With It? Closer Makes It Sexy on Broadway

Closer , Patrick Marber’s hip drama of sex, lies and rabid heterosexuals, has opened on Broadway following its sensational run in London, and I enjoyed this modern amorality play of our time immensely. It’s a pity, I think, that one or two reviewers regret that it apparently lacks evidence of love and emotion when the piece is crucially about the absence of both. Rather, Closer is a cool dark comedy of sexual desire and selfishness–and the illusion of love.

Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,

A medley of extemporanea;

And love is a thing that can never go wrong;

And I am Marie of Roumania.

Call Dorothy Parker an old cynic, if you must, but the lady would have appreciated the cynical 90′s reality of Patrick Marber. In the first cybersex scene in theater history, Dan–who’s pretending to be a girl–logs onto the Internet and connects with a stranger named Larry:

“Don’t be a pussy. Life without risk is death. Desire, like the world, is an accident. The best sex is anonymous. We live as we dream, ALONE. I’ll make you come like a train, Larry. Tomorrow, 1 P.M. Where?”

What’s love got to do with it?

The cybersex scene, projected onto a blue screen like a porn backdrop in space–”Nice 2 meet U,” “I love COCK”–had the audience in gales of laughter, incidentally. All sexual fantasies made public are ridiculous–even those kept private–particularly in this jokily obscene put-on. But Mr. Marber’s wit shows up in unexpected places.

The tightly written episodes and duologues surprise us. We can never be certain what will happen next between the quartet of lovers and users bouncing off each other in a chaos theory of disconnected relationships. In its random circularity of sex and ultimate, loveless dead end, Closer is a contemporary La Ronde (and Mr. Marber a young Arthur Schnitzler).

Yet this is only his second play. He’s a remarkably fresh, edgy talent, considered to be the leading playwright of his generation in England. Certainly, I prefer Closer ‘s dangerous, desperate reality–the cold narcissistic sluttishness of it all–to Martin McDonagh’s whimsical tall tales of Ireland that get me down. Mr. Marber’s first play, the poker-playing Dealer’s Choice in 1995, was influenced by David Mamet, but he has since found his own voice. The dramatist’s confident ear for compact, fizzing dialogue and its rhythmic undercurrents is the most distinctly alive since Harold Pinter first burst on the scene.

“Sorry. I was looking for a cigarette,” says Alice in the beguiling opening lines of the play. She’s been looking in a stranger’s briefcase. Seated on a bench, she has a bloody cut on her leg.

“I’ve given up,” says Dan, the stranger, declining the offer. He’s thirtysomething; she’s a punkish waif in her 20′s.

“Have you got to be somewhere?” she asks.

“Work. Didn’t fancy my sandwiches?”

“I don’t eat fish.”

“Why not?”

“Fish piss in the sea.”

“So do children.”

“I don’t eat children, either. What’s your work?”

“Journalism.”

“What sort?”

“Obituaries.”

“Do you like it … in the dying business?”

“It’s a living.”

The assured, flirtatious opening is full of possibilities and suckers us into the action. It possesses a smart surface urbanity that could be a clipped, chance meeting from Noel Coward’s Private Lives in a coarser vernacular. But the two characters could also be weirdly lying to each other in a world where words–what you actually say–have lost all meaning and credibility. “What’s so great about the truth?” Dan later protests. “Try lying for a change, it’s the currency of the world.”

Mr. Marber has also directed Closer , as he did in London, and on balance this is a superior production to the fine one I saw at the Royal National Theater. The ensemble, led by Natasha Richardson, is first-rate and perfectly balanced. Ms. Richardson as Anna, a photographer of “sad strangers photographed beautifully,” touches the heights in the graphic scene of blistering sexual jealousy that closes the first act. She’s also deftly comic in the play’s memorable definition of the psychological difference between women and men–poor, dopey, self-deceiving men:

“This is what we’re dealing with; we arrive with our baggage and for a while they’re brilliant, they’re baggage handlers. We say, ‘Where’s your baggage?’ They deny all knowledge of it. They’re in love, they have none. Then just as you’re relaxing, a great big juggernaut arrives … with their baggage. It got held up. The greatest myth men have about women is that we overpack.”

Both Rupert Graves (as Dan, the obituary writer, if you please) and Ciaran Hinds (the dermatologist, Larry) are immensely accomplished actors. They couldn’t be better in this manipulative game of chance and illusion that will leave them all losers. The 22-year-old newcomer Anna Friel as the gamin stripper Alice is a particular delight. Her accent is rooted in the north of England, where she was born–suggesting the lower, no-nonsense, honestly vulgar orders. She’s fun and sexy and vulnerable, a quicksilver talent playing an impulsive mystery. Ms. Friel is a natural–a wonderful star actress in the making.

Mr. Marber makes Alice too much of a mystery, however. It’s a lapse of sentimentality. There’s also some pretty blatant symbolism at work–the shallowness of the chic photographic image; the spooky Victorian girl-waif encased behind glass in a museum. Some of Mr. Marber’s moves are youthfully schematic. “What do you have to do to get a bit of intimacy round here?” Larry howls in despair. The answer is, Don’t go lap-dancing.

But such flaws aren’t decisive. In its cutting contemporary picture of sexual desire and emotional failure, Closer is a brilliantly unusual virtual reality that rings true. In its characters’ confusion and suffering, it yearns for gentle, mundane, unearned things, such as happiness.

For all the sense of futility and loneliness, the play sparkles and disturbs us. In London, audiences would laugh their heads off, perhaps recognizing themselves in the convulsive scenes of laughably easy betrayal and romantic anarchy. Then they would invariably fall uncomfortably silent before returning home, no doubt to have a blazing argument with their loved ones about fidelity and the nature of true love.

It can get too close for comfort, which is, of course, Mr. Marber’s crafty game. In its unsettling, perversely pleasurable way, Closer is the best new play on Broadway.

Another London hit has also opened on Broadway–the 1935 thriller Night Must Fall by Emlyn Williams. Goodness knows why.

A charming, psychopathic bellboy, played by charming, not terribly psychopathic Matthew Broderick, meets Mrs. Bramson, a wealthy, old bat confined to a wheelchair (the excellent Judy Parfitt, a good sport). The invalid’s pretty assistant, J. Smith-Cameron with a surprised look on her face, fancies the psychopath, believing him to be somehow innocent of murdering half the neighborhood.

Fill in the narrative blanks for yourself (you will be right). Mr. Broderick plays Dan, who was originally Welsh, as Irish. I don’t know about his Welsh, but his Irish accent wouldn’t receive a standing ovation in Tipperary. Emlyn Williams’ dialogue creaks along as nicely as it did 64 years ago. “It’s very wicked of you to scare an old woman with a weak heart!” Et cetera.

John Tillinger isn’t the kind of director to dynamite the old potboiler as Stephen Daldry did with his Hitchcockian, neo-Expressionist An Inspector Calls . The black and white set and costumes don’t do the trick. Theater isn’t a movie, and chic is the last thing English country house murders should be.

Night Must Fall amazes in its foggy thunderclap way: a mystery without mystery, a thriller without thrills, revival without reason. Good luck to it! As the play’s flinty housekeeper would say, everything’s gone topsy-wopsy!