Steppenwolf Theatre Company

By Adam Langer

I don’t believe one can show greater respect than to weep for a stranger…

–Jose Saramago, All the Names

The final scene of Patrick Marber’s clinical examination of late-90s sexual and romantic alienation takes place in Postman’s Park, at a memorial honoring ordinary citizens: Elizabeth Boxall, for example, who died in 1888 trying to save a child from a runaway horse, and Alice Ayres, who lost her life after rescuing three children from a burning building. In Neil Patel’s set design for Steppenwolf’s Chicago premiere of this hit London drama, the stones of the memorial frame the mostly bare stage throughout the play, a constant reminder of one of Marber’s ironies–that though one may often rely on the kindness of strangers, the cruelty of loved ones is equally sure.

“Ever seen a human heart?” asks Larry, a dermatologist whose profession–like those of the other three characters–seems a bit too purposefully chosen, demonstrating the skin-deep values of a society more surface than substance. “It looks like a fist wrapped in blood.” This striking image of human brutality and suffering may not completely represent Marber’s point of view–there’s ample evidence to suggest that beneath his characters’ ferocious sexual competition, unmitigated loneliness, and selfish savagery lies a slightly more hopeful view of human interconnection. But it does suit the greater part of the play.

Divided into 12 scenes, Closer details the desperate couplings–and even more desperate and violent uncouplings–of Larry, a working-class boy made good; Dan, an obituary writer with novelistic aspirations; Alice, a self-destructive stripper; and Anna, a photographer whose portraits of anonymous subjects suggest a parallel with the Postman’s Park memorial. The love–or sexual interaction that serves as its counterfeit–between the characters is as brief and fleeting as an act of violence, leaving them to spend most of their time dealing with its aftermath.

Marber expresses the seeming randomness of attraction, seduction, and betrayal in a witty, nasty, already somewhat dated practical joke: Dan pretends to be Anna in an Internet chat room and seduces Larry. Dan’s cyber-cross-dressing is just the most blatant example of how these characters invent and reinvent themselves to compensate for their cowardice and tenuous sense of identity.

The quartet’s many dissimulations are as much self-deceptive as purposely dishonest. The men are egotistical and painfully self-involved, deluding themselves into thinking they’ve fallen in love when in fact they’ve been seduced by their own hackneyed fantasies–the sperm-thirsty vixen on the Internet, the stripper in distress they can rescue. “You give us imagery,” Larry tells Alice when he meets her at a lap-dance club. “And we do with it what we will…” The women may not be as vicious and culpable as the men, but they still project their own cliched images on the male characters: Dan is the sad-sack artist in need of mothering, Larry the perpetually erect, swaggering physician. Falling in love with one’s own fantasy and self-image may be the most common act of the egotistical. But narcissism and onanism are ultimately unworkable for these four characters, because they’re so far from lovable.

In Abigail Deser’s production, each scene–whether it’s in the hospital where Dan and Alice first meet or in the hotel room where Dan’s petty egotism finally destroys any chance of a future together–ends with the resounding kttssssht of a camera shutter. Continuing the snapshot motif, most of the vignettes begin with the projected image of a stark, empty interior, suggesting the location of the scene; props and set pieces are kept to a minimum. These antiseptic interiors contrast sharply with the images of an idyllic arboreal landscape Deser has chosen to begin and end the play, strongly suggesting an homage to Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blowup, which also dealt with a photographer and alienated relationships among young Londoners. Juxtaposing disturbingly clean interiors with lush, green surroundings, the film effectively captured both the luxury of affluent, seemingly carefree Westerners’ circumstances and the sterility and pain of their emotional lives.

But more than anything this production’s photographed projections and camera sound effects suggest that Marber’s play represents an accurate, detailed photograph of our times–that he’s honestly if artfully snapping pictures of a selfish generation. Marber’s play is less a faithful reproduction, however, than a tersely rendered abstraction whose crisp, occasionally Mametian dialogue has been boiled down to its essence. His characters have more symbolic weight than emotional heft. And because of the schematic plot, they register more as archetypes than individuals. One may recognize much of his characters’ self-destructive behavior, but it’s recognition at a distance, watching strangers at a safe remove, as if through the wrong end of a telescope. One doesn’t feel implicated in the process–perhaps the title should be “Further,” not Closer. Tellingly, the cover image on the program shows two lovers in silhouette, their featureless faces impossible to identify.

Though the Steppenwolf main stage is far from a cavernous Broadway playhouse, oddly it feels almost too large for this play: the smallness of the actors in relation to their surroundings compounds the sense of anonymity. Deser–who directed the splendid Chicago premiere of Marber’s poker drama Dealer’s Choice and Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth for Roadworks–has shown a knack for developing sympathetic characters whose human foibles make for entertaining drama. But despite this production’s solid pacing and performances–especially an insightful, humorous portrayal of machismo and insecurity by Gary Cole as Larry–this is a colder, bleaker affair, an alienating play about alienation.

Ultimately, watching Closer seems the inverse of pausing to look at the unfamiliar names chiseled in stone at Postman’s Park: here one does not weep for the heroism of strangers but grows weary of their small-mindedness and self-involvement. It seems Marber’s sad, aimless characters are beyond rescue, and so it becomes disturbingly easy to just keep walking, with only a passing thought and nary a tear.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.