Closer and Pistols for Two

George Bernard Shaw remarked that the English and the Americans “are one people, separated by a common language,” which may or may not be true. It is a fact, however, that we have been engaged in a lively theatrical exchange with our British cousins for a good 150 years or more, swapping theatrical artists and literature with each other almost at will.

From Closer
From Closer

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,

From Closer
From Closer

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.


The Steppenwolf cast includes ensemble member Gary Cole, plus Heidi Mokrycki, Lia Mortensen, and actor/playwright Bruce Norris. Mokrycki, the youngest of the four, has gamin chic and a little danger about her. Mortensen is cool, elegant, beautiful. Cole is surprisingly effective as a British dermatologist, especially as he’s not known for his dialect work, which he does nicely. Norris’s still-boyish looks belie the possessive nature of his character, the catalyst for the action. All do fine work in creating patterns of behavior (the play, in part, is about repeated patterns) for the characters, and showing the vulnerability that lurks beneath the thin skin of love.

From Pistols for Two
From Pistols for Two

The romantic sailing is a lot smoother–or at least comes to a happier ending–at Lifeline Theatre, the lively, small Off-Loop company that specializes in adapting literary works for the stage. For the last four years, Lifeline has had a particularly cozy relationship with the works of Georgette Heyer, the author of 57 volumes of costume romances, who died in 1974. Previously, Lifeline scored hits with adaptations of Heyer’s full-length novels, Cotillion and The Talisman Ring. The adaptor was company member Cristina Calvit, who seems to have an instinct for Heyer’s tongue-in-cheek approach to epics of heaving bosoms and dashing lords, all bedecked in 18th-century lace.

This time around Calvit has dipped into Heyer’s short stories, cleverly intertwining three tales of Regency romance. The major conceit of Pistols for Two is that the heroine in each of the three tales is reading a romantic novel in which one of the other two young ladies is the heroine. While playing out the improbable details of her own quest for a hero, each young lady comments on how improbable the other’s tale is–and how she would solve it if roles were reversed! Thus, Calvit nimbly moves the girls and boys in and out of each others’ stories. It doesn’t really matter who ends up with whom: true love wins after obligatory pistols at dawn.

It’s loads of fun, as directed by Dorothy Milne, and, at 90 minutes, makes for colorful and fast-moving entertainment. Scenic designer Alan Donahue has created a handsome setting making effective use of the actual brick walls of the Lifeline stage, plus trellis-like period windows, flowing drapery, and well-selected Regency style furniture. The costumes of Kim Fencl Rak are rich looking and period-accurate, capturing the elegance of the age and of the upper class. The cast of three men and three women all play broadly but believably in multiple roles, and seem to relish their quick costume changes. Apparently, audiences do, too: many performances are selling out.

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Pistols for Two

Closed: August 27, 2000