Typically, Grace Ann Productions, led by Artistic Director E. Kirby Jr., takes on wholesome, family-oriented plays, like this month's You're a Good Man Charlie Brown and March's Altar Boyz, incorporating American Sign Language and a large cast of children into most productions.
So, it's surprising that the company chose to produce Patrick Marber's modern, scathing examination of truth, sex and denial Closer, which opened last weekend.
When I inquired about the unusual choice, Meghan Hurley, the company's marketing director and the director and an actress in Closer, told me Kirby has always had an affinity for the provocative. But, until now, you'd never have known it.
Closer spans a four-and-a-half-year-period in the lives of four individuals--Alice, Dan, Anna and Larry--coincidentally connected and tangled in lies, love and lust.
It begins in a hospital waiting room in January. Daniel (Micah Stinson), an obituary writer, has accompanied Alice (Victoria O'Connell), a stripper and self-described waif who's injured her knee walking out into traffic, to the hospital.
She is briefly examined by a passing dermatologist, Larry (Jaye Christopher), who lends her a cigarette before rushing off to have a smoke himself.
Alice is aloof yet alluring. She is coy but longing, and Dan is immediately taken by her. She convinces him to call in to work and spend the day with her. He then leaves his girlfriend Ruth and embarks on a relationship with Alice.
The next scene occurs in June of the following year. Dan has written a book, based loosely on Alice's life, which will soon be released, and Anna (Hurley) is taking his headshot for the back cover. Dan is attracted to Anna and shows no qualms over attempting to seduce her, even as Alice is listening in the next room.
When Dan excuses himself, Alice confronts Anna about her interlude with Dan, and Anna assures Alice she is not a thief.
The following January, Anna and Larry meet at the aquarium after a practical joke played on Larry by Dan proves fateful. Dan and Larry meet in a chat room titled "London Fuck" where Dan poses as Anna and engages him in Internet sex. The dialogue, explicit and slightly arousing, plays out on a large screen behind the actors.
Dan knows that Anna frequents the aquarium--one of her favorite haunts for photographing sad strangers--but he doesn't realize that he'll actually be setting the two up and that a relationship and eventual marriage will ensue.
All four characters meet again five months later at an exhibition of Anna's portraits of those sad strangers, one of whom is Alice, and that meeting marks the beginning of an affair between Anna and Dan. The affair lasts a year, and the following June, both Anna and Dan leave their partners to be together.
In the second act, Alice and Larry, hurt and strung out on their desperation for lovers who don't love them, find themselves in a vengeful, lustful affair following an escapade in one of the private rooms of the strip club where Alice works and goes by the name "Jane."
The characters' relationships are further entangled when Larry and Anna get back together only to separate again, and Dan returns even after Larry maliciously reveals his affair with her. But when Dan presses Alice for the truth, in a hotel room before they set out for a holiday in New York, Alice, caught up in the despair of not wanting to tell the truth and not being able to lie, leaves Dan.
In the end, the people who so desperately sought (or pretended to seek) the truth realize the last four years of their lives have been a lie.
And that's what the play is about: The apparition that is love. Marber is a cynic, and his play, with its beautifully rhythmic yet bitingly callous dialogue, sets out to reveal the lie that is love and the lust that controls human actions.
The play is as gorgeous as it is bleak, and its unflinching contents would be difficult for any company to take on, let alone one steeped in wholesome goodness.
And yet the cast handled themselves fairly well. Right off the bat O'Connell was lovely. She was reserved, yet charming, and through the first act, she paced her character's evolution well, allowing her silent desperation to slowly build.
Stinson played the immoral philanderer well, but I was annoyed, in the first scene by his refusal (intentional or not) to look at O'Connell when he spoke to her. It made the connection that was supposed to develop between them unbelievable because he didn't seem connected to her at all.
Hurley, as Anna, was poised, graceful and demure. She, too, seemed to understand the journey her character was on and allowed that journey to manifest itself in her character's actions and reactions.
Christopher, in the beginning, was the only one whose performance displeased me. I didn't like his cockney British accent, and I felt like he brought an air of unintentional awkwardness to every scene he was in.
But, in the first act's final scene, as Anna and Dan were simultaneously leaving their partners, he was the only one who exhibited any sort of understanding of pace or motivation.
The scene between Stinson and O'Connell was disastrous. Neither seemed to connect nor understand what their characters were supposed to be doing or feeling. They lacked intensity, sincerity, emotion. Stinson once again seemed disconnected, and while O'Connell attempted to portray herself as overwrought, the performance fell flat.
Christopher, on the other hand, allowed his performance to slowly escalate, so that every word, every inflection, every gesture seemed justified and warranted. And his performance demanded and inspired a similar response from Hurley, which she delivered deftly, making the final five minutes of the first act the best of the entire play.
When the show resumed, it seemed as though the actors had lost a bit of their steam. O'Connell's character failed to continue in her evolution, seemingly lost for direction.
Stinson, Christopher and Hurley wavered, scene to scene--at times brilliant, at times boring and at times neither. I have a feeling that a few technical glitches and misspoken lines shook their confidence, but what ended up a beautiful, climactic first act failed to come full circle in the second.
Still, the play wasn't dire, and I'd still recommend folks give it a watch. It's a beautiful, if heartbreaking tale, told by a group of largely competent actors. The set, stark but for a few props here and there, reflects the play's content, and the large screen on which photographs are used to set the scene offers a nice context.
Closer continues this weekend, May 28-30, in the Tulsa Performing Arts Center's Charles E. Norman Theatre. Showtimes are 8pm, and tickets are $15. Call 596-7111 or go to www.tulsapac.com.
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