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As part of its "Wait Til You See This" second stage series, Burning Coal Theatre Company turns over the helm to new theater company She’s a Nelson Productions for its current show, a play written in 1997 by British playwright Patrick Marber, Closer. She’s a Nelson is a company founded by Lilly Nelson, who plays Anna in the show. Paul Sapp, who directs the play, and Laurel Ullman, who plays Anna, were called in by Nelson to help with this production.*
Closer follows the lives of two couples who meet and grow in London over a period of four and a half years. Dan (Brian Fisher) meets Alice (Lilly Nelson) when she steps in front of the cab in which he is riding. He and the cabbie take her to the hospital where she is cursorily examined by Larry (Miles Snow) before being treated. Dan and Alice become lovers and live together for a year and a half before scene two begins. Dan, a writer, publishes his first novel during that time, and he is getting his picture taken by Anna (Ullman) for the jacket when he puts the moves on her. Despite her real reluctance, he convinces her to see him, and the two end up lovers. But there’s a catch. Dan spends some time online with Larry (a coincidental situation) playing him by telling him that Dan is actually a woman. Dan arranges for the doctor to go to the museum to meet with him/her, using the name Anna, and when Larry goes, he meets the real Anna. Through an uncomfortable scene, Larry is apprised of Dan’s plot, and Anna and Larry begin seeing each other. Anna, who has none of the difficulty with truth that characterizes both Dan and Alice, stops seeing Dan and marries Larry. This carries us to the final scene, a dual situation in which Dan tells Alice about Anna, and Anna leaves Larry to be with Dan.
The above is a truly simplified compilation of Act I, which carries on for about an hour while these two couples meet and then separate. The timeline covers a span of two-and-a-half years, though time is compressed considerably into six scenes. We come to learn the romantic notions of love and truth that Dan has, how he “needs” Anna over Alice, and how Anna deals with Dan and Larry over the course of the last year. Act II covers the span of about a year-and-a-half, while the two couples end up jumping in and out of each other’s beds.
The scenes take place on a minimalist set that would do Shakespeare proud. Four arched settees and a table are all that is required to supply a full twelve different locales in this play, all of which take place in London. Marber seems to take extreme care in moving these actors all over the city as they play out their love affairs in each other’s beds.
Closer is supposedly about truth, or the actual lack of it, when it concerns the romantic trysts that take place between these four people. Dan seems to want the actual truth in both relationships, but he is unwilling to provide it. He lies to Alice for a long time before he finally tells her about Anna. Though Alice has only a passing relationship with the truth herself, she leaves him immediately, and goes back to stripping, which is her chosen profession. That she and Larry hook up after the splits in scene six seems only natural, considering that Larry takes Alice as a conquest, to get back at Dan. The bed jumping is almost comical in its intensity, as Alice lies to both Dan and Larry about her past, her present, and, as it turns out, her future.
Closer is Marber’s third play. It made its American debut in 1999, two years after its first British production. While the play is comical in places, the overall intensity of emotion that takes place in almost every scene overshadows the humor and makes the play taut and tense. While this ensemble of four handled the play well, and delivered the emotion in spades, the selection of this play seems to be working against them. While the play seems to try to deal with truth and relationships, the tawdry in and out of each other’s beds makes this show less than entertaining, and leaves the viewer feeling a bit tawdry too. The final scene takes place a full four years after scene one. Without giving anything away, safe to say that it is an unsatisfactory ending to an unsatisfactory play. While Closer seems to want these couples to tell the truth, it doesn’t allow it. The lies become the play, and the dirt that comes with them leaves the audience a little smeared as well.
Ullman and Sapp are the founders of a joint venture coming up in July, under the name of Tiny Engine Theatre. The company opens its new season with a play titled Hearts Like Fists, to be presented at the Common Ground Theatre. Here’s hoping that this new venture meets with more success than does this current one.
*We are grateful to Laurel Ullman for this clarification of these roles and responsibilities.
Closer continues through Sunday, May 18. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.