Talking dirty: a defense of Closer

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In today’s Post and Courier, Spoleto overview critic Joshua Rosenblum strokes his chin over a pair of festival plays that have infidelity as their common theme – Spoleto’s drawing room comedy The Constant Wife and Piccolo’s production of Closer, in the little festival’s Stelle di Domani series. In his smartly written argument, Josh observes that it took seeing the two back to back (he and I were both at Tuesday night’s production of Closer) to realize just how radical – and superior – a play The Constant Wife is.

Josh – who’s seen a play or two in his time – and I talked at some length about the two productions at intermission and afterward, and I certainly respect his position. But I’m compelled to step forward and say a few words in Closer’s defense. (Disclaimer: I’m a friend of director Laura Lounge. But my familiarity with the play goes back to my first viewing of it as a Broadway production in 1999 and extends to a review I wrote last fall of a different local production. I’ve also seen director Mike Nichols’ film adaptation. Just so we’re all clear.)

Let me first remind that The Constant Wife is dripping with its share of cliches: Men are sweet idiots and philandering buffoons, pathetic slaves to their libidos; women are gossiping harpies but true as a plumb line, easily satisfied by a regular ransom of goodies from hubbie and a trim figure. (“Of course she’s happy, Constance’s mother says at one point, “she dresses well, she sleeps well, and she’s losing weight.” Ba dum, bum.) Granted, some of them may have become cliches in the time since W. Somerset Maugham wrote it in 1926, but that leaves plenty.

Patrick Marber’s play premiered at London’s Royal National Theatre in 1997. There, it won the Lawrence Olivier Award (their version of the Tonys) for Best Play. After it moved to Broadway in 1999, it won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Foreign Play and was nominated for a Tony for Best Play. (His screenplay for last year’s film Notes on a Scandal earned him an Academy Award nom.) What all those critics saw in his play, and what touches so many observers on a fundamental level about it, is that Closer does for modern young (and middle-aged) adults what any great play must do: engage them by giving them an unstinting reflection of themselves. The Constant Wife, for all its cleverness and crackling wit, has no more relevance to today’s married couples than a 1950s HomeEc textbook.

“There’s a whole lot of fucking going on in Patrick Marber’s play Closer,” I wrote in my review of Theatre verv’s production last fall, “and to all outward appearances very little of it has anything to do with making love, though love is ostensibly, superficially, what this play is all about. The four lonesome Londoners in the story slip into and out of each other’s lives — and, variously, each other — like the action of an origami fortune teller, each time offering up a different variation of flawed relationships anesthetized by fear, self-loathing, and deception. Lying, as one character wryly observes, is “the currency of the world,” and the characters in Marber’s play indulge in it with at least as much gusto as they do the more horizontal aspects of coupledom.”

Lounge’s production at Theatre 220 is a strong one, but,as other observers have noted, the acting is sometimes patchy, as is the pace, and three of the four College of Charleston student actors are perhaps a little too young to believably inhabit the roles Marber has written. Yet it has Marber’s exquisite language working for it, which goes a long way for this critic. The playwright has a gift for dialogue that operates at a level well above ordinary discourse, flirting with the fringes of naturalism while providing a glass into what’s actually going on beneath the brutal words, into hearts as inaccessible as unmined diamonds and the limbic tugs of desire and need that drive his characters and his play.

And of course it’s filled with breathtakingly foul language and a trash-talking stripper doing a pole dance, which satisfies. Back to you, Josh.

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