Closer to the Core

Patrick Marber's award-winning Closer, about the tawdry underbelly of love and sex, is full of twists of dialogue that put a nasty '90s spin on the war between the sexes. "You're a man. You'd come if the tooth fairy winked at you," says the cool, smart Anna to her droopy paramour Daniel.

And when Dr. Larry meets stripper Alice in a club, he coos such sweet nothings as "You've got the face of an angel. What does your cunt taste like?"

Street-smart and wicked, the sassy, doe-eyed girl retorts, "Heaven," then tosses her pretty chin into the air.

Oh, if we all could be so quick when love slaps us down. But Marber's got one up on most of the heartsick in the world. The smart playwright who sees the world through hell-colored glasses was a stand-up comic earlier. Thus his '90s world of romance gone to the dogs is as funny as it is mean and dark. As one character observes: Taken out of the body, the heart looks like a fist covered in blood. That said, the Alley's production, directed with an in-your-face punch by Stephen Rayne, slices right down to the bones in that clench of love.

The play begins when Daniel (John Wojda) rescues the lovely, boy-thin Alice (Michelle Federer) from a car wreck. He taxis her to the hospital, where they get to know each other while waiting for the doctor. Lugging her life around in a battered backpack, the childlike stripper knows exactly what men like in a woman. "She must come like a train, but with elegance," she observes, with the sweetest, most charming smile floating across her pouty mouth. As for Daniel, he's a sad-sack, briefcase-toting obituary writer who's now utterly smitten. She's so mysterious, a contrast of the lost and slutty innocence, besides being drop-dead gorgeous -- everything a frustrated novelist needs in a muse.

Scene two: Daniel's sitting for the photo that's to adorn the jacket of the book that Alice inspired. He flirts shamelessly with Anna (Jenna Stern), his droll, attractive, redheaded photographer, and then proceeds to fall head over heels for her once she admits to liking his novel. That says buckets about the reckless, soulless writer. When they meet again at the opening of her photography show, he can barely contain his desire, defending his indiscretions by saying that he's tired to taking care of the childlike Alice, though it's Alice who seems to be doing most of the work in the relationship.

Dr. Larry (Russ Anderson), the kindly dermatologist, stumbles into the story in a '90s sort of way. The bored and imaginative Daniel enjoys surfing the Net, where he poses as a potty-mouthed, redheaded woman with "epic tits" who's on the prowl. In a quiet, curiously carnal scene, the two men diddle with cyber-foreplay and then agree to meet at the aquarium, a place enjoyed by Anna. What begins as Daniel's cruel joke on some poor unknown schmuck in cyberland turns into the best sort of revenge: Dr. Larry actually meets Anna at the aquarium, and the two fall in love. Far-fetched as this might sound, it cranks up the tension and pushes the four characters into a hell of bad behavior riddled with a love-you-hate-you-kick-you-when-you're-down kind of desire.

The only person who remains true is Alice the stripper, who is used and discarded by each of the other three characters with an unconscious, almost gleefully nasty disregard for what Larry calls "the moronic beauty of youth."

Alice, of course, is no moron. As played by the exquisite Federer, with her powerful gaze and brooding, willful intelligence, she becomes the moral center of the play. Tumbling about her are three foolish thirtysomethingers. Wojda's Daniel is the perfect, spineless, slump-shouldered writer who caves into himself when faced with the demands of the real world. Anderson's Dr. Larry is a venomous fighter who'll level anything that gets in his way. And Stern's Anna is full of intelligent elegance and lonely confusion.

Out of these four lives comes a love story of the funniest, most abject sort of misery made all the more hilarious and all the more disturbing by the terrible truthfulness of the tale.

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Lee Williams