What do you get when an obituary writer rescues a stripper, and the doctor who treats her marries the photographer who takes her picture? In “Closer,” the answer is a brutal entanglement of emotions and sex, motivated by selfishness.
Justin Attkisson directs Appalachian Creative Theatre’s solid production of a self-indulgent quartet who inflict misery on each other not out of malice but with shocking indifference. The winner of the 1998 Olivier BBC Award for Play of the Year is a sharply written examination of relationships that asks whether truth-telling is always the honorable path, and whether lies serve a purpose.
Janine Atkinson plays Alice, an American stripper who never looks when she crosses the street and gets hit by a car. Devin Clark is Dan, an obituary writer who wants to be a REAL writer, and who finds a subject when he rescues Alice. When Dan’s book is being published, he hires Anna, played by Heather Bucsh, to be his photographer.
He’s attracted to her, and Alice hears her lover proposition Anna. Anna rejects Dan and then photographs a crying Alice, who admits what she heard. In the only part of the plot that is a stretch, Dan ends up in a sex chat room with Larry (Lance Beilstein), the doctor who treated Alice in Scene 1. Dan impersonates a woman; filthy Internet sex ensues, which prevents this play from bring something you want to see on a first date. The virtual incident leads Dan to trick Larry into meeting him at an aquarium; instead, Larry meets Anna, and a quartet is born.
The ensuing relationships are defined by probing dialogue, in which the characters analyze the harm of their actions and then commit them anyway. The themes will resonate with anyone who has been in a relationship. One is whether one falls in love or chooses to be in love. “There’s always a moment when you can give in,” says Alice, inferring that one can choose not to just as easily.
Another is whether telling the truth is a moral imperative or a way to relieve one’s guilt. “I couldn’t lie to you, because I love you,” says Larry as he confesses to his wife. What he hasn’t considered is whether his admission is the permission she needs to indulge her own fancy.
A strip club scene between Alice and a heartbroken client captures the essence of that timeworn dynamic. The man is torn between self-disgust and the need to fantasize that he is the stripper’s object of affection. The stripper maintains an icy professionalism, taunting him with her body and using words that can be interpreted any way he likes. Well done.
Joseph Watson’s set design is imaginatively simple. Each scene is defined by a single photographic image on a flat screen. They range from an Emergency sign to a fish tank to a portrait of Alice crying. It’s a great use of technology to differentiate a static set.
When his rival is appealing to his sentimentality, Larry replies, “Have you ever seen a heart? It looks like a fist wrapped in blood.” Enough said.
Appalachian Creative Theatre does Patrick Marber’s dramedy about two men and two women whose lives intersect.
WHEN: 7 p.m. Friday-Sunday.
WHERE: UpStage, 3306-C N. Davidson St.
RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes.
TICKETS: $12 in advance, $15 at door.
DETAILS: 704-430-4821 or upstagenoda.com.