Sex as a weapon

Before I set out to see Closer, an adults-only play featured at The Artists Resource Center on Wall Street, I considered tracking down the state law on public obscenity — just in case.

But I needn’t have worried.

Although the play is rife with sexual situations — and the raunchiest language possible — there is, in fact, no nudity. Cleavage, yes, but no actual naked people. (Just for fun, though, consider checking out the state statute on lewdness, if only to see the phrase “discernibly turgid” used in a sentence.)

That said, if you’re likely to be bothered by repeated use of the F-word, then this play is not for you. (And if you’re under 18, you won’t be allowed through the door.) But if you’re open to an edgy exploration of sex and relationships, then you’ll probably find it a worthwhile night of local theater.

Directed by Charles Mills, Closer revolves around four self-absorbed lovers who essentially take turns making each other’s lives miserable. AREA:45, the 45-seat theater underneath the Wall Street parking deck, has a subterranean feel — which happens to be well-suited to the play’s dark look at love, lust (lots of it) and betrayal.

Set in present-day London, the play features a strong performance by Kelly Leah Christianson as Alice, a street urchin/stripper whose character veers from the disturbingly fragile to the unflinchingly tough. An auto accident (in which Alice walks in front of a cab) puts her into the arms of Dan, a dissatisfied obituary writer capably played by Jeff Messer. (“I work in the Siberia of journalism,” sighs Dan.)

The pair share a genuine chemistry, and their rendering of the cleverly written script yielded more than a few belly laughs. But too much harmony won’t do in drama. By the next scene, Dan and Alice have become established lovers — and Dan has mined Alice’s stripping life to use as fodder for his book. But then Dan (emerging as the play’s grand cad) lets his eye wander to photographer Anna, expressively portrayed by Carrie Howard.

In an uproarious scene involving cybersex and masked identities, Larry — a dermatologist ably brought to life by Carrie’s real-life husband, Jon Howard — is drawn into the increasingly complicated mix.

The first act ends on an explosively shattering note — with Larry pummeling Anna with explicit questions about her affair with Dan. The scene effectively sends the rest of the play off on a spiral of sexual revenge.

Along the way, various characters spout off about truth, kindness and love. But nobody seems particularly truthful, kind or loving.

Even so, occasional truths do emerge from the lovers’ tangle. In a nicely realized scene, Alice interrogates Anna about having stolen Dan the Schmuck, calling her rival on the notion that they “fell” in love by accident.

“You didn’t fall in love,” declares Alice. “You gave into temptation.”

But even Alice has to admit that she stole Dan from his former girlfriend, Ruth. (Lucky Ruth — she doesn’t appear on stage, but the audience learns later that she’s apparently a blissfully happy married mom.) Too bad that Alice — who suffers a fate Thomas Hardy might have devised — couldn’t escape unscathed.

What ultimately disturbed me about Patrick Marber’s script is that his exploration of the miseries of love seemed so oddly lacking in heart. By the second and final act, most of the characters seemed mainly intent on wounding one another — or at least being so oblivious to one another’s feelings that they accomplished the same end. Although the cast did a fine job of showing the jagged results of that emotional destruction, I came away feeling a bit empty.

But no doubt that’s the irony the playwright intended when he named the play Closer. And art isn’t always about imparting a warm, fuzzy feeling, is it? In the end, I’m glad the ensemble took the risk of mounting a production that stretches the boundaries of local theater. I’ll be back for more.

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