Film Studies: `Too satisfied with its own vision to risk real emotion'

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The Independent Culture
It was probably always in its destiny that Closer, the play that won so many British drama awards for playwright Patrick Marber, would find its way to Broadway. What London show doesn't these days? There are seven British-Irish imports here, or on their way. David Hare has declared New York his own. His Via Dolorosa has been here a week; Amy's View, with Dame Judi Dench, opens next month.

But Closer, the bitter dance of four emotional wrecks ricocheting repeatedly off one another in their respective quests for love, might have been written for America. Its inspiration, indeed, was a strip joint in Atlanta, visited by Marber three years ago during a tour of his first play, Dealer's Choice.

More than that, the characters in Closer, all of them so depressingly self-absorbed, neurotic and, above all, lonely - played in New York by Natasha Richardson, Ciaran Hinds, Anna Friel and Rupert Graves - are so painfully, so recognisably Manhattan. "I see people like that every day just at the bus stop," remarked a young actress sitting beside me on opening night last Thursday.

Closer, therefore, has a chance to resonate with New York audiences in much the same way that Yasmina Reza's Art did when it finally landed on Broadway almost exactly a year ago. It should be one of the spring season's hottest tickets, despite all the other Brit-competition (not to mention some strong home-grown offerings such as Brian Dennehy in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.)

The inclusion of Natasha Richardson on the billing will do no harm. The applause has barely died down from her Tony Award-winning Sally Bowles in the revival of Cabaret. Plus, there was some deft "wonder-boy Marber" hype ahead of the arrival of Closer. And opening night at the Music Box Theatre - across 45th Street from Via Dolorosa - qualified as a star event. Those in the audience included Dame Judi herself and other Oscar-night refugees.

"Actually, I'm more excited about seeing Harrison Ford," admitted Paul, the stripy-shirt man who became my other neighbour for the evening. He had travelled from Washington to see the show - or rather to see the famous people in it and watching it. When the lights were down, he actually came close to nodding off. That, though, would have been a feat. Closer is not exactly a soothing piece.

Talking to the New York Daily News last week, Marber sought to flatter his prospective New York audience - just in case anyone dared suggest that Americans might find his work less appealing than Londoners had, or, indeed, that some might be shocked by its explicit content (linguistic, not physical). "I find audiences here quicker," he told the interviewer. "I thought I'd have to change things for here, make it more ... I don't know what. Audiences seem to get the jokes quicker here."

Marber, 34, who also directed, may feel less warm about New York's critics, however. They rendered mixed verdicts that may deny the play some of its hoped-for box-office steam. "You get the play's point, no question about that, but you don't feel the pain," complained Ben Brantley of the New York Times. "And without the visceral connection between the characters and the audience, Closer starts to seem like a thematic connect-the-dots game, or an algebraic equation for the pathology of desire."

Brantley concluded: "Despite the many excoriating exchanges among the characters, you only fitfully believe in their capacity to be hurt, and for the most part you do not care if they are or not."

Fintan O'Toole, of the Daily News, who, like Brantley, could not fault the actors themselves, apparently left the play similarly frustrated. "In the end, Closer is too satisfied with its own dark vision to risk any real emotion. That makes it ultimately as cold and self-absorbed as its characters."