Also see Sarah's review of Macbeth
Likewise, Virginia, sexual intimacy itself can also be an expression of one man's Narcissism. And that's certainly the case in Patrick Marber's sprawling, four-person play, Closer. Its self-loving Romeo is played with sociopathic charm by Christopher Lawyer, as an irresistible manipulator of hearts, at least for the first 45 minutes or so, before you start wanting to strangle him. But he meets his match in this story of two overlapping love triangles, in a rival played by John Pierson: a brainy but lonely doctor. Both the rake's progress, and the doctor's dilemma, would make this 1997 play a good contemporary companion piece to Dangerous Liaisons, though Closer is a lot more explicit and direct.
There is rueful, embarrassed laughter, and a whole lot of humiliation too, along the way. A stark, frighteningly sterile intimacy dominates most of the action, under the direction of Wayne Salomon, on a disturbingly plain gray stage, as blank as an inner thigh. And any moments of kindness or affection are doomed to sudden annihilation here. Four of my female Facebook friends (all long-time theater veterans) happened to be sitting around me in the audience, and two of them were appalled, to varying degrees. The third seemed merely disappointed, comparing the play to the 2004 movie, and the fourth woman deemed it a barely qualified success. But, for whatever reason, I found it grisly and utterly gripping. In spite of the horrifyingly dark tone, and its wretched abuse of women, it's strangely fascinating. So, maybe I've been knocked down to 486 friends now, after this artistic disagreement.
But that's where the analogy to Facebook friends utterly breaks down: in Closer, the women never get to vote on anything. They are merely victimized and humiliated and used over and over again by the two menone who's out to dominate them (as well as the other man in the story), and that other man, who's out to put a stop to him. In the distaff roles, Meghan Maguire is a proud beauty, in spite of the depravity of men, who's tinged with romantic resignation; and Rachel Fenton is the young lady who escapes past victimizations through a caustic sexuality and a series of impressive new get-ups: wigs and costumes that leave most of her scarred selves behind, like a hermit crab that drops its old shells. What both women go through (in terms of smug verbal humiliation) is probably not to be discussed in polite society. But now I also suppose I know why some women find me na´ve.
The St. Louis Actors Studio stages this darkly fascinating drama as part of its "Angels and Demons" series, and it's an apt candidate. The women are (admittedly) tarnished angels, and at least one of the men would make a demon blush. John Pierson, as the avenging Larry, is quite amazing, showing us the wheels-within-wheels as he spars with Mr. Lawyer's romantic terrorist. Patrick Marber's script also has a fine, rewarding structure, though of course a regular theatergoer may be a little weary of the convoluted timelines of this and other modern plays by now. And getting to the payoff is a little like cleaning up after a mass murder. Maybe it's just because I went to a Sunday matinee, in broad daylight, after church. But be prepared for some shocks, artfully constructed and delivered. And if you're a woman? Well, don't go with a man, unless you really, really trust him. Or if you want to see what extreme situations may make him laugh, or cringe.
The set, though very artful and cleverly replete with slide-out desks and props In hidden cabinets in the flats, proved awkward at times for the actors on the opening weekend. And in a play where the psychological back-drop is the intensely personal sexual experience, all the complicated set-changes conducted by the actors begin to take us out of the moment (as sometimes stubborn design pieces go in and out of walls, and props may clatter to the floor off-stage). Sorry, set designer Patrick Huber. You may want to "un-friend" me now, too.
Through February 27, 2011 at the Gaslight Theatre, 360 North Boyle, just east of the New Cathedral (which is on Lindell). For more information call (314) 458-2978 or visit them on-line at www.stlas.org.
* Denotes member, Actors Equity Association