The play opens with Alice, the stripper, in a hospital waiting room with a bloody gash on her shin. She wears a pink short skirt, boots, and an old brown coat. The way she chats with Dan, an obituary writer -- who's rescued her from an accident with a cab -- is trashy, happy, languid, coquettish: Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the full range of Alice's character as well as some grace notes of gleeful cruelty. Dan's swept away. By the next scene he and Alice have been going out for a year and a half. In fact, his book on the adventurous life of a certain stripper is about to come out, and he's being photographed for the book jacket. But the photographer is an equally coquettish ex-married woman named Anna, and Dan starts to flirt with her. This keeps up through a series of unlikely scenes until four Londoners have cross-pollinated. Then everything goes to hell.
Patrick Marber wrote Closer for London's Royal National Theatre, which also put on his previous play, Dealer's Choice. "He spent five years on the comedy stand-up circuit before moving into radio and television comedy shows," according to a bio, and the TV-comedy experience shines through this script like a nervous blue glare. Each scene is snappy, flinty-eyed, and ends too soon. Characters develop offstage. (Alice doesn't seem like the settling-down type while she flirts with Dan in the hospital, for example, but by Scene 2 she's a needy girlfriend.) There are Internet jokes: Dan fools a doctor named Larry into believing he, Dan, is a nymphomaniac woman in a chat room. The scene is well-handled, but the actors don't do much. And when hearts break, the characters blow up at each other the way they do on television: suddenly, with lots of shouting.
The reason I call Marber a former punk is that his bio mentions punk as an enthusiasm; maybe I'm overstating it. But Larry, the doctor, also sees Alice in some London strip joint he remembers as a punk club "20 years ago," and the whole show feels fast and peremptory, like a Minutemen song. Larry's punk-club remark and the chat-room scene also drop the play squarely into the 1990s; but nothing here feels like especially modern theater. It's old, formulaic. Marber goes in for mirror-image scenes: First the women have a catfight, then the men. First Alice and Dan break up, then Anna and Larry. The notion of stripping meets the theme of truth-telling so baldly that Larry actually yells, over throbbing music in the club, "No, Alice, tell me something true!" Then he breaks down. "You're not allowed to cry here," says Alice.
So Marber's clever more than profound, direct without being deep; but the show is still fun. Some throwaway lines are amusing -- "He spends hours staring at my asshole," says Alice, "as if there's going to be some answer there" -- and Gyllenhaal saves the scenes of forced emotion by dredging up something real. The play comes together in what looks like a reunion scene between Alice and Dan, with Alice frisky on the bed before some kind of holiday trip, when Dan asks for the "truth" about her relationship with Larry. When she admits that yes, she did in fact fuck Larry, she throws a tantrum and falls instantly out of love with Dan. The idea -- too obvious on paper -- is that romance and truth aren't compatible, and now that I think about it the end of this play collapses into a sodden pink-eyed mess, with Alice behaving as if the end of romance were the end of the world, and the other characters pursing their lips and nodding with regret. But Gyllenhaal makes it work.
In fact, both women in this cast have more endurance than the men: Gyllenhaal and Natacha Roi (as Anna) hold up their characters with infectious poise. Andrew Borba plays Dan well as long as the dialogue stays witty and light, which it unfortunately stops doing in most of the second act; Thomas Schall's uneven Larry takes over as a more interesting and layered character by the end.
Why it's called Closer I'm not quite sure: Closeness is never discussed. It should be called Stripped, or maybe just Bare.