“Love bores you,” one character accuses another. “No, it disappoints me,” the other responds. Patrick Marber’s “Closer” skips syrupy-sweet implications to engage with the underbelly of romance. The close-up look at intimacy gone wrong is more relatable than we’d often like to admit.
School of Music, Theatre & Dance senior David Barnes makes his directorial debut with “Closer,” and in it he allows the audience to come face to face with shame, deceit and the disappointment of falling in and out of love through vignettes that peek into the lives of four individuals. First performed in London in 1997, “Closer” centers on the intertwined love lives of two men and two women in a way that is hardly romantic. It is peppered with decisions that show desperation and questionable moral character in the pursuit of meaningful intimacy.
The production, backed by student organization Basement Arts, focuses on a minimal design while tackling complex and sophisticated emotional content. The cast consists of four actors, and the set is little more than a table and couple chairs.
“What’s nice about this play is that it kind of skips all of the lovey-dovey every day romantic life and just goes from ultimate romance to catastrophic disaster, which is really exciting for the actors because you’re not doing anything but highs and lows the whole time,” Barnes said.
The show is honest and unfiltered in a way that was controversial at its outset. Barnes said theater was a fitting medium for its darker storylines.
“I think it’s a very relatable show. I think a lot of theater accents the reality of humanity and kind of digs into the dark sides of people, but this show kind of takes it to another level, which is why when it came out in ’97 it was so shocking,” he said. “It’s certainly less shocking now, but it explores people doing shitty things, doing things they shouldn’t do, doing things that we — as society — frown upon, which is so interesting because we all do stuff like that. We just kind of shove it under the rug.”
Although, as audience members, it is challenging to parse where our sympathies ought to lie, Barnes suggests that the intention of the play is not to feel sorry for the characters, but rather understand their motives and rationale for behavior that has harmful consequences.
“Everyone cheats; everyone lies; everyone is kind of horrible to each other, but with good reason,” Barnes said. “I don’t need the audience to like these characters. I just need them to understand them, because all of the things we’re doing are things we’ve done or we would do if we were in the situation, we just tell ourselves we wouldn’t.”
“Closer” lives up to its title in the decision to present on a “thrust stage,” which essentially means that there is no backstage and the stage is surrounded by the audience on three sides.
“Doing it in the thrust is really exciting because it kind of literally thrusts the actors into the audience … the show is very aware that it’s theater,” Barnes said.
Because the style and form of the play is so intimate and bare-boned, the scenes require comprehensive and meticulous text work, something that a small cast generously lends itself to.
“With a small cast I can spend an hour with two people working on 15 lines and really dig into it and really figure out what’s working, what’s not, why they do everything,” Barnes said.
I saw him do exactly this during a rehearsal in which two characters, Anna and Dan, discuss the muddy terms of their relationship in a restaurant. During the scene, Barnes urged the actors to search for intention and purpose behind even the most seemingly small moments. Everything from an entrance to a moment of eye contact to an “I’m not hungry” is probed and replayed to further convey the emotional and psychological complexity of the interpersonal dynamics at play.
Barnes asks the actors questions like “How does it feel that the perfect woman is no longer perfect?” and asks them to pinpoint moments of realization that may not be vocalized, but rather expressed through subtlety of facial expression or body language.
Barnes explains the process of creating “Closer” as one that combines creativity with self-reflection to create multidimensional characters.
“A lot of it is just using your imagination or personal experience and putting yourself in the mindset of where these characters would be,” Barnes said. “Like, ‘What would happen if the love of your life suddenly walked out the door?’ We talk about that, we let that simmer.”