There is much to laud in Red Turnip Theater’s maiden production “Closer,” directed by one of its founders, veteran actress Ana Abad Santos.
First is the new theater company’s actual choice of this play for its debut. Despite critical acclaim for the material overseas, and a cinematic version helmed almost a decade ago by Mike Nichols that made it more familiar to a mainstream audience, Patrick Garber’s script does not make for easy watching or listening.
While the dialogue is street-smart, punchy and aims to resonate in all the right emotional places, it also leaves a lot of things left unsaid—challenging the audience to fill in the gaps and follow the emotional and intellectual bread crumbs that the characters toss by the wayside.
But then again—and this is the beauty of Marber’s material—the same thing happens in real life, especially in complicated relationships like the ones portrayed in his play.
Human beings talk, but they don’t really communicate. They hook up, but they don’t really connect. They make assumptions, and pay dearly when those assumptions turn out to be a mistake, or when they misread each other or fail to notice what the other actually needs.
That is the conundrum of the four characters in “Closer,” whose lives weave in and out of each other. Would-be novelist and obituary “journalist” Dan (Marc Abaya) and photographer Anna (Angel Aquino) are drawn to each other, despite their own intense devotion to each other’s partners, stripper Alice (Cris Villonco) and dermatologist Larry (Bart Guingona), respectively.
When the inevitable falling-out happens, the rejected partners make their own emotional alliances, to the confusion of all involved. This relational merry-go-round is not just your typical romantic story gone awry. Listen a bit deeper to the dialogue (what it implies, and not just what it says), and you find yourself peeling bit by bit what makes each character tick, the chemistry that bonds each pair together, and what they all reveal about their own attitudes toward love, sex, deceit and the trauma of transparency.
One of the challenges of “Closer” lies in connecting the relational dots and piecing together the broken bits of emotional glass that the characters habitually break as they find themselves and redefine their passions. The complexity of the material underneath a seemingly simple storyline is probably one of the reasons it won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play in 1998, a year after it debuted in London.
That complexity is also what makes “Closer” a character-driven play first and foremost. Performing it in a venue such as Whitespace where the proverbial fourth wall of theater does not exist is also an advantage. The intimacy between actors and audience, which in turn makes it easy for the audience to see the intimate interplay between the characters, is easily present. It suddenly sets the audience right in the heart of the drama—with the characters’ hearts, minds, souls and guts right in front of them to squint at.
It would take a certain amount of courage for the actors who perform these roles to do it in such an intimate space. The performers would have to dig deep into themselves and find that inner connection that would make the whole thing authentic for their audience. That’s not an easy task for actors in a play like “Closer,” which openly talks about orgasms, sexual preferences, and deep-seated emotional needs.
Red Turnip Theater makes an even bolder step by pitting (in a sense) veteran actors like Guingona and Villonco with newbies Abaya and Aquino. The former can simply overshadow the latter—or they can help push the newbies to rise to the challenge.
“Closer” raises the bar for everyone concerned, and the success of this production does depend on the collective effort of its four actors. It is an actor’s showcase, requiring very little of the whistles and bells we’ve come to expect in other productions—and the minimalist production design by Gino Gonzales serves merely to illustrate background and context while ultimately putting the actors on center stage, where they should be.
The performances of all four leads are undoubtedly earnest. Abad Santos directs with a restrained hand, and there are no histrionics and no unnecessary emotional explosions of the sort that degenerate into melodrama. However, the play proceeds at a glacial pace. The story and the performances creep along, and the intended increasing rise in intensity as the conflicts happen and the emotions unravel keep the emotional playing field at a steady, monotonous level.
The chemistry among the alternating pair of lovers does not truly sparkle. There are arresting performances from the veterans, and Villonco easily steals the thunder from everyone else—but this is a play that requires the characters to rise together as one, and not do solo star turns, even if unintended.
Wait and see
The gaps alluded to in the play that should have intrigued the audience become emotional vacuums that keep the proceedings at a standstill. The resulting reaction is to wait and see. On certain occasions, what could have been tension resulting from the ambiguity of those emotional spaces becomes a boring waiting game.
During these lapses, even the interpretation of the character is lost on the audience. We never really understand the attraction that Abaya’s Dan and Aquino’s Alice have for each other; the supposed gentle-lover-hidden-underneath-a-rebel-with-a-cause that is Dan does not really surface. We just hear of him in the dialogue.
And again, until the dialogue directly referred to it, Guingona’s Larry is far from the boring, middle-age, middle-class square that he is supposed to be.
Marber intentionally wrote “Closer” with characters that have a lot of emotional gaps. It behooves the actors as a collective team to close those gaps and entice the audience to follow. As of last week’s performance, the spaces are still there, waiting to be bridged.
The actors of “Closer” do have their hearts in the right place, and the sincerity in their performances is obvious. Perhaps all that this production needs is a bit more time to come together, to create those bridges, stoke the fire and singe the audience with the material’s slow-burning intensity.
Red Turnip Theater’s “Closer” runs until Oct. 27 at Whitespace, 2314 Chino Roces Ave., Makati. Call 2150788 and 0917-5378313, or visit www.ticketworld.com.ph.