Theatre Review: “Closer” by NoExit Performance

It’s been a while since I’ve been in a sexual relationship.  Sometimes I feel sad at the thought that I may never be loved that way again. 

However, when I came out of the Service Center for Contemporary Culture last Saturday night after seeing NoExit Performance’s intense production of “Closer” by Patrick Marber, I took a mental cold shower, laughed out loud and thought, “Hopie, you are doing just fine on your own!” 

I also had to laugh when I realized that I had been mispronouncing the name of this new-to-me play in my head.  The title is not “Closer” with a “z” sound as in “the person that closes a deal” but rather “closer” with a soft “s” sound as in “Come closer, I want to kiss you.”

Or as in “I am trying to get closer to the truth.”

The story is of four beautiful liars that treat sex as both more important and less important than it is, all while sacrificing things like self-discipline, non-judgmental listening, the Golden Rule – things that might actually bring them the connection and meaning they yearn for.

Throughout the show I kept wanting to ask someone, “Who ARE these people?”

But I never once doubted that they and their story were real.  The four yummy actors that portray them do so brilliantly under the direction of Tommy Lewey.

And days later, I am still thinking about this show.

Coincidences…

The play opens with an injured waif, Alice (Lisa Ermel), waiting for her new knight, Dan (Matthew Goodrich), to bring her a cup of coffee from the hospital vending machine.  We learn pretty quickly that we are in England, that she is American and therefore she was probably looking the wrong way when she stepped off the curb in front of his taxi.  (Only much later do we wonder if her stepping into traffic was deliberate.)

Alice just has a cut on her leg and a rip in her textured stocking but Dan insisted on bringing her in to be examined by a doctor. 

We also learn fairly quickly that he is British and writes obituaries for a living, and that Alice is a stripper.

Now you may be thinking, as I did, “A stripper? Oh, please.”  But Lisa Ermel’s layered portrayal of Alice makes something special out of the cliché.

And the sexual chemistry that develops between “reserved” Dan and “disarming” Alice as they get to know one another is oh-my-goodness intoxicating.

Eager to leave the hospital now, Dan flags down a passing doctor, Larry (Sam Fain), who tells Alice she is going to be fine.

In the next scene, Dan and Alice have been together several months and Dan has written a novel based on (stolen from?) the story of Alice’s life.  It has been accepted for publication so for the book jacket he is getting his picture taken by a professional photographer named Anna (Georgeanna Smith.)

During the photography session he comes on to her!

I won’t tell you any more about how these four people – Dan, Alice, Anna, and Larry – become more and more enmeshed in each other’s lives except to say that if I were to describe each new step in the process of their 4-way mostly heterosexual entanglement you would probably think it preposterous, but in the moment of presentation it somehow works.  In the moment, you don’t question it at all.

…Rhythms…

Part of this is due, as I already mentioned, to the brilliant acting.  All four actors are stellar.

It is also due, I think, to the unusual sound of the script.  Director Tommy Lewey uses the word “staccato” in his program notes and that is exactly the word that occurred to me as I thought about the show immediately afterwards. I thought, “No one talks like that in real life.”

During the show, however, as I was experiencing it, I didn’t think about the spoken rhythms.  I bought into them completely and unconsciously. The overall rhythms of this play’s conversations are hypnotic, even as the individual voices within that rhythm go all over the board in terms of emotional tone.

Sometimes scenes overlap seamlessly in time and space.  This, too, adds to the feeling of being mesmerized.

…and Themes

The playwright is as slick as a condom in the way that he uses the sex lives of these four people to poke around the ideas of truth and lies, courage and cowardice, trust and betrayal and more.  Oh, there is a lot to think about and talk about in this show!

For example, there’s the conversation in which Anna tells Dan she has been unfaithful to him.  He, in anguish, shouts something like, “Did you come?  How many times?  Did you enjoy it?” as if her orgasms belonged to him.  And of course, they don’t, any more than her body does, even though Dan and Anna are now a couple. But she answers him anyway.

Or the conversation in which Larry tells Dan to write another book.  Dan says he doesn’t know what to write about, now that he has used up Alice’s story.  Larry tells him, in so many words, that everyone has their own stories, and that Dan should man up and tell his own.

In some ways it would be easy to label Alice, Dan, Anna, and Larry as the waif, the wimp, the icicle, and the caveman, and to call this a play about lust, and leave it at that.  However, the playwright and the actors let us see each character’s complexity along with the cluelessness.  They nudge us to look, yes, closer at our assumptions about relationships, and at questions of ownership and integrity, too.

There’s a twist at the end that I won’t spoil by describing it here except to say that maybe the playwright wants us to realize that when we push too hard to get to “the truth,” we destroy it, or at least lose it.  I don’t know.  Days later, I am still percolating on this show.

Have I mentioned how much I admire the acting? Very, very much.

A Word or Two about the Design Elements

I also admire the show’s blocking:  it uses the whole stage space in ways that make sense and which draw the already intimate audience in even…closer. 

I also admire director Tommy Lewey’s just right costume design.  The music choices are just right, too.

For the most part, the set is Fringe Fest-like in its simplicity, but there are two or three unexpected features that are quite interesting. 

For example, slides help establish the locations of the some of the scenes.  That same screen allows the audience to look over the shoulders of the two men as they chat online anonymously about sex in a very explicit way.  It is more funny than arousing, at least for me, but in any case it seems to put us firmly in the late 1980s or 1990s or whenever it was that people were first discovering the thrills and pitfalls of cyber sex.  The fact that the play is NOT set firmly in 2012 or in some “timeless” time made it a richer experience for me because it prompted me to think about how far we’ve come (pardon the expression) and how far we still have to go in terms of communicating effectively with each other online.

Another example is the visual of a luxurious brass bed rolled into the otherwise starkly black and white set at the appropriate moment.

And yet another example of the unexpected is the set itself at the end, which cleverly serves to emphasize one character even as it diminishes that character.  (How’s that for mentioning a feature that intrigued me without spoiling it for people that have not yet seen the show?)

Madeline Carey is the stage manager. Patrick Weigand designed the lighting. Michael Burke was the projection designer and production assistant.  Rusty Grant and Julia Levine are the light/sound/projection board operators.  Veronica Orech and Allyson Womack were the production assistants.  Lukas Schooler did the videography.  Scot McKim designed the program.

The Venue

So..for a number of reasons I am glad I got to see this show.  I am also glad to have finally made it to a NoExit production and to have finally visited the Service Center for Contemporary Culture.  I took the photo at the top of this post with my trusty iPhone on my way in from the free parking, but before I could a take a better photo that shows the whole “You are beautiful” message, I heard “The door is this way, Hope!” from Q Artistry’s artistic director, Ben Asaykwee, so I asked him and his friend to pose for me:

The Service Center is a big, low building in the parking lot of Lafayette Square Mall on the west side of Indianapolis.  It used to actually be a place where people brought their cars to get the oil changed or whatever.  You can still see all the garage doors along the sides, and I think most of the space inside is one huge space that can be configured as needed for all kinds of performance art or for making other kinds of (possibly large) art such as sculptures and paintings and collages and so on.  I don’t know for sure, I’m just guessing based on what I could see when I glanced in the back windows on my way in.  But artist Scott McKim sat next to me during “Closer” and told me at intermission that there were visual pieces already exhibited in the lobby and that all kinds of great community-building stuff goes on at the Service Center.

For “Closer,” a small rectangle of the vast main space has been sectioned off with a black curtain.  A couple rows of chairs (with the back row on risers) section off a smaller square of that rectangle, and there are two more rows of chairs against the wall that forms the lobby.  In the resulting intimate space, I think that any seat would be a good one, which is good because you don’t get a lot of time to deliberate.  They let everyone in at once and, as the woman at the box office counter told me, “That’s the start of the show.”  Alice is already on the hospital bench, digging through Dan’s briefcase, when the audience pours in.

If you go to see “Closer,” I will warn you that it is a fairly long play and you sit on the same style of wooden folding chairs that are often rented for the outdoor tents at storytelling festivals.  So…either bring your Hoosier Storytelling Festival seat cushion if you still have it, or wear a cushy coat that you don’t mind folding up to sit on.  Your behind will thank you. 

But don’t let the thought of sitting on wooden folding chairs keep you away if you are in the mood to see something sexy and disturbing.

NoExit Performance’s production of “Closer” by Patrick Marber continues Thursdays-Saturdays through September 29, 2012 at the Service Center for Contemporary Culture.  For more information:  www.noexitperformance.org

‘See you at the theatres!

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com and @IndyTheatre on Twitter

©2012 Hope Baugh

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