WHEN DELIVERED WELL, British playwright Patrick Marber’s Closer will make you wince. It’ll leave you feeling battered and even embarrassed, like a voyeur witnessing a gruesome accident from an uncomfortably close — and powerless — ringside seat. And while Atlas Theatre’s performance of the play could use a little polishing, the production does have several of these elements working in its favor.
Words — Curious, Nothing, Want, Everything — flash on video screens as Elvis Costello’s “I Want You” grinds to its slow, gravelly halt and the play opens in an emergency room with a young man, Dan (Ryan Remark), and a woman, Alice (Jessica Afton), who has just been hit by a taxi on a London street.
“I never look where I’m going,” says the purple-haired vixen, as she digs into Dan’s lunch sack. Dan falls for Alice. Alice falls for Dan. Dan falls for Anna (Breon Jenay), who sleeps with Dan but marries Larry (Alex Olson), who sleeps with Alice. Partner-swapping and verbal combat ensue. No one looks where they are going, and everybody lies.
Director Chris Mayse’s minimalist, tennis-court style staging works great in this production, forcing the audience to train their eyes back and forth as the couples battle it out in more than a dozen vignette-style scenes, as video screens project settings from bedrooms and art galleries, to hotel rooms and strobe-lit strip clubs.
While the performance suffers some from pacing issues, the cast was at its best when showcasing its comedic talents (the clever staging of the play’s infamous online sex scene, for one), and during verbal jousts filled with Marber’s searing wit.
In the opening scene, Afton, as emotionally-starved stripper Alice, comes on a bit eager, offering lines that felt more scripted than seductive before easing more comfortably into her role. Jenay is at her best when conveying emotions through facial expressions alone — hurt, anger and, the one most fleeting in this foursome, true remorse.
And while Remark captures “reserved” Dan’s jaw-clenched stoicism, he seems a bit stuck there, too reluctant to let loose in some key scenes, despite a good payoff further in. Olson appears most attached to his role as Larry, nailing the comedy and undergoing multiple transformations to reach a sort of epiphany during a strip club scene, as he locks eyes with audience members, shouting, “What do you have to do to get a little intimacy around here?”
With a tightening of some scenes, and more willingness by the cast to really let loose on one another, this production could hit a fever pitch.
Closer Thu-Sat, Mon, 8p (no shows Sept. 7-8), Sun, 4p, through Sept. 15; The Box Office, 1120 Casino Center Blvd., www.atlastheatre.org, $15