Dress warmly when you go to see Patrick Marber's lacerating drama Closer, the current offering at St. Louis Actors' Studio. An icicle chill permeates the proceedings. Which makes for an unexpected reaction. You might think that a play so consumed by sex might stir up a little heat. Marber leaves cozy warmth to the sentimentalists and romantics. His preoccupation (perhaps even obsession) is with the deceits, large and petty, perpetrated in the name of love. How do I betray thee? Let me count the ways.
It's surely no accident that the play's very first image is of blood. Alice, the most naive of Closer's four protagonists — though not all that naive; she makes her living as a stripper — has been hit by a taxi. Her heretofore lithe leg is now a gory mess. The kindly Dan — though not all that kindly; he will trigger the play's dizzying machinations by being unfaithful to Alice when he attempts to seduce a svelte photographer, Anna....
It gets dizzying, trying to keep all these peccadilloes straight, and we're only following the misadventures of four people.
At any rate, here at the outset Dan has come to the rescue of this wounded waif. He has brought her to a London hospital. A viewer is well advised to listen carefully as Alice and Dan feel each other out in the emergency room. She is just back from an unhappy visit to New York City. He writes newspaper obituaries but aspires to be a novelist. These early probes provide the only (relatively) innocent exchange of the night. But Marber doesn't waste words, and nearly everything Alice and Dan say to each other will have resonance later.
Here in the waiting room, we also briefly meet Doctor Larry. Despite his schooling, there's nothing very sophisticated about Larry. He is an admitted caveman whose actions are guided less by his brain than by his urges. The next time we see Larry, his bedside manner will have found a more suggestive outlet. He sits at his computer and attempts to arrange an assignation through the convenient services of a website named "London Fuck." Well, why not? Even doctors are human.
Alas, no one in Closer is human. Not the three we've met in scene one, nor Anna, the alluring photographer we meet in scene two. These four are about as real as the characters in a 1940s Preston Sturges screwball comedy, where the patter is hurled so quickly that you're lucky if you catch every third or fourth line. In a play like Closer, motivation counts for very little. Delivery is everything. Under the tight direction of Wayne Salomon, these four actors — Rachel Fenton (Alice), Christopher Lawyer (Dan), John Pierson (Larry) and Meghan Maguire (Anna) — deliver. They talk a lot, while learning very little, about themselves. If self-destruction is an attribute, then these four are heroic. Closer is a precursor to The Social Network, a more recent story that fascinates despite the absence of one single appealing character.
The spare scenic design by Patrick Huber resembles a photo studio. Its stark white environs reveal our moody quartet in sharp detail. This locale is especially suitable to Anna's studio, where she first meets the lemming Dan. But Huber's icy set also could pass for an art museum gallery wherein these four are the objects on display. Closer's razor-sharp bluntness created a sensation when the play debuted in the late 1990s. A dozen years later, the piece does not feel remotely dated. If the dialogue is not quite so shocking as it once was, perhaps that's only because the times have caught up to it. But the play's train-wreck nature remains constant. You might not like what you're seeing, but it's hard to turn away.