The intimate, engrossing and overlong “Closer” features two men, two women and a seemingly infinite number of possible romantic variations. The four personalities presented play off each other recklessly, wittily, sometimes brutally, often in clipped incisive sentences that sing and sting and push eventually into pretension. While they overstay their welcome, the cast of this TheatreLAB production never lets up on the intensity and each individual journey offers slivers of insight into the messy jumble that is the human condition.
The play starts with Dan (Thomas Cunningham) rescuing a flirty stripper named Alice (Theresa Mantiply) from a traffic accident and their playful, revealing conversation in the hospital waiting room sets the template for the rest of the show. Months later, Dan meets Anna (Liz Earnest), a photographer taking his picture for the dust jacket of the book he has just written. Though now ensconced in a relationship with Alice, Dan becomes obsessed with Anna. While impersonating her in an online chat room, he inadvertently arranges a real-life meeting between Anna and Larry (Evan Nasteff), a dermatologist who quickly becomes enmeshed in the web of connections.
The scenes that follow transverse several years as attractions are explored, weaknesses are exploited, a marriage comes together and falls apart. Alice, who seems the most vulnerable, emerges as strong and independent. The cold and competent Anna appears to fall apart. The rivalry between Dan and Larry becomes explicit, their indiscretions like battering rams that they can wield against each other. Late in the play, the playful attractions that spurred the romantic entanglements originally have been lost and, as the characters get emotionally pummeled, the audience ends up getting pretty beaten up as well. When one character eventually makes a connection outside the foursome, it’s hard not to cheer.
A high level of audience involvement in the characters is the direct result of uniformly strong performances. Cunningham starts the play charmingly nerdy but reveals an almost sneaky charisma and a surprising vulnerability. Tall and elegant, Earnest perfectly embodies the forceful but still fragile Anna. Nasteff’s character may be more of a blunt object but his relative naiveté makes for an interesting contrast, particularly to Alice. The revelation here is Mantiply who boldly tackles the challenge of portraying a character dedicated to remaining unknowable. Coquettish, defiant, seductive, and aloof, Mantiply’s Alice may be a stripper but her appeal comes from what she keeps hidden.
The action takes place on a sprawling set designed by Deejay Gray with moody, and occasionally muddy, lighting designed by Michael Jarrett. Director Chanelle Vigue’s choices evoke an atmosphere of emptiness and isolation, with locations as different as an aquarium and a photographer’s studio all seeming to exist in a contextless void. The droning music (sound design by Greg Elingburg) adds to the sense of timelessness.
The subconscious message Vigue conveys is that, though these characters are clearly trying to get closer to each other, their estrangement is inevitable. As played out by this cast, the dynamics of disillusion are fascinating to watch.
“Closer” played at the RVA Event Space near Plant Zero through May 10th.