March 19, 2002
Think of the most powerful, moving love song youíve ever heard. Got it?|
Now ask yourself: how did the love affair that inspired the song end up? Is the lyricist on wife number three, his muse long forgotten?
Human beings often perceive love as a destination. We see the search for love as finite, at some point ending in true love and a glorious wedding. Patrick Marberís Closer explores the lack of resolution many of us live with, depicting a rollercoaster continuum thatís the nasty flipside of the comforting fable we more often encounter on stage and screen.
The play begins with the meeting of Daniel and Alice, two single young Londoners who share an immediate attraction. But even their meet-cute has a hard edge - Danielís just hit Alice with his car, and theyíre waiting on a doctor to treat the nasty cut on her shin. They donít have the professions of Hollywood sweethearts, either - Daniel is an obituary writer, and Alice is a stripper. In someone elseís play, the two might be then launched on a series of nutty adventures, endure a separation caused by a misunderstanding, and be tearfully united in the last act for the big wedding. But this isnít a Hollywood musical; itís an all-too-recognizable slice of modern life. No one breaks into song or dances over Blackfriars Bridge in heels, but thereís cybersex, possible self-mutilation, strip clubs, deception and recrimination, all in an unflinching examination of the modern search for love, connection, and sex.
After Daniel and Alice, a third character is added to the mix: Anna, a newly divorced photographer. Sparks fly between Anna and Daniel, but soon Anna meets Larry, a doctor whose search for sexual adventure doesnít overshadow his innate morality. She becomes involved with him, and all four characters are off in a wild game of musical relationships that lasts for years, warping and transforming their lives.
Alice the stripper is played by Dana Childs, a genuinely beautiful young woman who bears a resemblance to the film actor Penelope Cruz. Childs has a waifishness thatís right for the codependent Alice, seeming to inhabit a sordid world while retaining a childlike innocence as well as an immature dependence on working her appeal to the baser nature of men. I liked Alice holding herself above the trashiness of her job and her sexual misadventures, but when Aliceís ability to manipulate men could be powerfully revealed, Childs continues to hold a dissonant note of disapproval and reserve. Alice is sexy and charming, but she might have been a richer character by evincing an understanding of her own craftiness.
James Yost as Daniel lacks passion, but is adept at portraying the smugness and unthinking callousness that seem to be his characterís twin hallmarks. He also shows a slight discomfort in his own skin that works well for a character who doesnít seem to know how to deal with the world unless heís in charge. Yost has a natural, patrician air of entitlement that works well with Danielís shallowness, filling in a background never touched upon but wordlessly conveyed.
Camille Dewing as Anna has a demure serenity that adds flavor to her character but doesnít quite jive with how Anna is written. Dewingís Anna seems too intellectual, cool, and reasonable to indulge in the shenanigans she indulges in. Yet Dewing has an artful ability to inhabit her character all the time. Some actors drop their characters a little when another character speaks, impatient to deliver the next line. Dewing has a lovely way of always being Anna - of scratching herself restlessly, of darting her eyes about in guilt or shame, of really seeming to listen, as Anna, to whatís being said around her, not just waiting for the other characterís mouth to stop moving so she can step back into herself and speak. Dewing also has good comic timing, and her wryly funny scene with Alice in the second act is a highlight of play.
Joe Copley as Larry, the doctor, is the most out of place of the cast. Copley is a charming performer with an innocent, almost Capraesque comicality, and bends himself well to he playwrightís darker will. But among actors more in tune with the playwrightís world, heís like a sunflower in a bouquet of black roses. He canít seem to sink to the level of sordidness the play requires, though when Larry is eventually tempted to engage in the Machiavellian sexual behavior the rest of his social world seems to revel in, his transformation is believable, if not as shocking as it could be.
The actors are an able group, engaging and more than able to carry the action, though only Childs seems capable of the wounded passion needed in the playís most intense scenes. Voices get raised and characters act out sexually, but the most intense moments never quite gel. The sexual heat is never as intense as situations might warrant. However, the cast sparkles in quieter or funnier scenes.
All four actors do a fine job of conveying the rhythms of the British accent. None of them nail it perfectly, though Copleyís is the most consistent if not the most convincing. They do, however, carry the accents off more than well enough to sustain the illusion that they are English, and that the action is in London. All the actors use the accent of the educated, socio-economically advantaged strata of London society. While this is an appropriate choice for the doctor, journalist, and photographer, is it the best choice for the stripper?
The set and props are the absolute bare minimum to support the action - a cot, a bed, a desk, and some wooden chairs. It works, but it seems minimalist and low-budget rather than minimalist and functional - more the financially-challenged directive of a struggling nonprofit than a directorial statement. I understand that BBTG is a minimalist group, but minimalist wonít work for every show, and a more realistic set might have added some visual depth to compliment the showís moral, intellectual, and emotional depths.
Chad Calvertís direction is sure and mature. Some of the couplesí lovey-dovey interactions seem generic, overtly choreographed, and unrealistic, but overall Calvert has done a fine job of letting the action unfold in a realistic manner that suits the warts-and-all script.
While the actors and director were more than competent, things were shaky on the technical side. The costumes were dull and uninspired - generic Polo shirts and too many pairs of all-purpose black pants. At a formal opening of a photographic exhibition, almost every character wore glorified street clothes. Costuming could have been a good way to express the passing of four-and-a-half years the play covers, but only through dialogue do we understand time has passed. I could be wrong, but the preponderance of black in the costumes didnít seem to be so much a directorial statement as a lack of attention to the picture presented onstage. These are interesting characters with interesting lives, so it was a shame to see them in baggy khakis, hiking boots, and overcoats with most of the buttons missing. Lack of budget is probably again the villain here - the play was good enough that it bothered me that the technical aspects couldnít do the actors, script, and director justice. Props needed a little help too - must the rose one character gives another be a Wal-Mart fabric reusable rose? Maybe it must, which is really a shame.
One lighting effect worked well: a fade effect to close the first act - and one did not: a blue gel effect meant to signify a switch from one time period to another. More powerful lights of a different color overpowered the blue throughout the scene, rendering pointless any attempt to make things look different onstage by using the blue gels - they didnít affect the color of the light hitting the actors one bit.
Lack of budget made another unwelcome appearance in a scene of chatroom seduction between two characters. Their online chat was written to appear in projected "subtitles" showing what the actors typed, but was instead spoken aloud as their fingers flew on their respective keyboards. The actors were good enough to make such a forced choice seem natural, but staged as written the scene could have brought down the house.
But financial impoverishment is a fact of nonprofit theatre. Aside from the choices forced on the production by lack of funds, Closer is troubled by the lack of chemistry between almost all of the characters save Daniel and Alice (though Anna and Alice have a wonderful scene together that generates more interest than almost any other pairing), and Dewing and Copleyís not-quite-right fit in the roles of Anna and Larry.
Closer isnít for the morally timid, but it will reward the brave. It dances with nihilism but is never nihilistic, and remains too humane and complex a work to be easily labeled as a cautionary tale. Itís anti-love story that questions the suitability of human nature for the "lasting love" society insists is real, but at the same time it holds out a steadfast hope for human connection, for even if every character in Closer experiences terrible hurt, no character ever loses faith in the value of relationships.
Itís damn refreshing to see a Charlotte company choose such a dark and challenging work and pull it off on a shoestring budget.
Note: The Leaderís Lon Bumgarner has said of BBTG, "Like the childrenís hand-clapping used to bring Tinkerbell back to life, only concerned support from the audience who cares will keep intellectual, avant-garde theatre alive in this town." As a critic, itís not my job to do more than offer an informed opinion. But as a local theatergoer, I can appeal to you to sit in the audience and clap your hands to keep something valuable alive.
Jennifer Saylor, March 19, 2002