Two new Chicago productions are cases in point. Steppenwolf Theatre Company has opened Closer, the latest drama by au courant Brit playwright Patrick Marber, while Lifeline Theatre has dipped into the extensive canon of Georgette Heyer, the British author of immensely popular costume novels, for a summer lite delight called Pistols for Two. These two shows bring to a close the local 1999-2000 subscription theater season.
Closer was a hit in London in 1998, and not a hit on Broadway last year. The Steppenwolf interpretation is remarkably different from the London original, and yet the essence of the play remains the same: a dark, acerbic, tightly written and quite possibly too honest look at the brutal relationship strategies of four affluent twenty-something and thirty-something Londoners. The two men and two women claim to want true love and lasting marriages, yet they throw away what appears to be the real thing with seeming callousness. All four are manipulative, frequently self-serving, and very needy. While Marber has given them considerable superficial charm, he chooses to show us their ugliest sides in his bid to strip the relationships down to emotional bedrock.
He succeeds rather well, but that certainly doesn't make his characters likable or particularly sympathetic. The Steppenwolf version, under Chicago director Abigail Deser, is considerably less brittle--and also less funny--than the London original; still, the overall impression is of a cool work about self-absorbed people. The impression is reinforced by the scenic design (Neil Patel) and lighting design (James F. Ingalls), which isolate the characters against neutral backgrounds on the large, nearly empty stage, broken only by photomurals of various locales.
In her well-observed program notes, Deser writes, "I think the play, like the people who inhabit it, acts a little crueler than it is, in order to protect itself from seeming like a love story." As Deser has staged it, for example, the characters almost never touch each other in physical gestures of romance or tenderness. Closer, then, is a difficult go for a director and cast. It can't possibly qualify as a pleasant night out, even though it's technically a comedy, and it lacks the catharsis of great drama and tragedy.
It can, and does, succeed intellectually and on the basis of theatrical values. With regard to the former, Marber quite accurately observes that love is fragile and can be shattered in an instant, and needs constant reinforcement and reinvention. With regard to the latter, Marber is a pithy playwright who learned by writing for TV how to create tight scenes that go for the jugular. Fortunately, his vision is bigger than TV, and he's able to provide multiple layers for his well-constructed scenes and people. They rarely let their emotions out in this particular work, but they are there nonetheless.