It is unfortunate but not uncommon for human beings to confuse sex with love. A great deal of our Western literature has been devoted to this misappropriation, and it’s likely that you know some people who behave this way in real life. (If you’re in high school or college, these might be the only people you know.) But Patrick Marber’s CLOSER is a special case. The characters in this play mistake sex not only for love, but for oxygen. Sexual appetite defines them; lust provides their sole source of meaning, superior by far to jobs, family, and non-sexual passions. Even their means of income are euphemisms: a dermatologist describes his profession as “the skin trade.”
When I first saw Mike Nichols’s film of Closer a decade ago, I found the sexual chess game riveting—probably because I was eighteen and sex still seemed like a high-stakes pursuit. But now, watching Gregory Scott Campbell’s production at Luna Theater Company, I could think of nothing but how sad and aimless these people are. It helps that the actors aren’t movie-star pretty: Josh Browns (in the role of Larry) is more salt than pepper up top, and Sam Henderson (Dan) is a lanky fellow with intense features. Where Nichols’s film seemed preoccupied with provoking the audience to think about pretty people fucking, Campbell’s production allows us to see the raw humanity in these people—or, in many cases, the lack thereof.
Attempts at summarizing the action serve only to short-circuit the brain. A series of improbable meet-cutes introduces us to Dan, the obituary writer-cum-failed novelist; Alice (Gina Martino), the manic pixie sex bomb; Anna (Kirsten Quinn), the cosmopolitan photographer; and Larry, the aforementioned lascivious dermatologist. Each couple engages in sexual congress until one member grows bored and seeks stimulation from a member of the other couple. Our heroes(?) behave like kids in a candy store until everyone’s bedsheets are stained and all the closets have been stuffed to bursting with skeletons.
The trick of directing Marber’s play is getting us to care about people who have quite literally one thing on their minds. Campbell succeeds by treating sex like war. His characters don’t desire one another so much as they jockey for field position. They enjoy sex the way J.J. Watt enjoys murdering quarterbacks. Anna moves between infidelities like she’s flipping channels; Larry is more Gordon Gekko than Don Juan. There is no such thing as making love in this world, and the sex is neither sensual nor, in the traditional sense, dirty. It’s tactical.
Campbell should be praised for doing what he can with what is, at best, a problematic play. Marber (who was last seen doing screenplay punch-up work for the upcoming Fifty Shades of Grey adaptation) treats his conversations about sex and fidelity with an almost embarrassing degree of earnestness. No matter how good the actor, it’s hard to make lines like “I’ve been you” and “I love everything about you that hurts” sound anything other than laughable. Browns, speaking the latter sentence, succeeds; Martino doesn’t quite, but how could she? Her character is painted as a con artist with a questionable history, yet she’s the only person in this play who doesn’t do anything overtly wrong. Her identity is wounded by the play’s midpoint, and we’re left at the end to wonder how genuine her persona was in the first place.
It’s possible Marber is attempting to make a statement about the ways in which mysterious women are lusted after and then discarded when the mystery ceases to entertain. But treating the character in such a cruel manner without making her terribly likable causes us to wonder what function she serves to the narrative. She’s genuine yet completely fake.
But then, the fact that this play presents so many thematic paradoxes is a perfect reason to go see it for oneself. I don’t know if I’m quite comfortable with what Marber’s play is trying to tell me, but Luna’s production at least confronts the text with honesty and courage. Even if you aren’t onboard with the implications here, the hormonal soap opera still offers plenty to chew on. The truth is complicated, Marber seems to imply. It’s hideous and it hurts and it often begets more damage than lying. It stings like a bitch, but we keep whipping ourselves in the vain hope that the truth can bring us closer to full intellectual and emotional freedom, to the essence of our human experience. [620 S. Eighth Street] January 17-February 7, 2015; lunatheater.org.