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Sex and the city

Rogue Planet gets raw with Closer

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If sex makes you do strange things, imagine what writing about sex does to you. Apparently the more explicitly writers explore sexuality, the less generous becomes their view of humankind. Neil LaBute's Your Friends and Neighbors, David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago and Patrick Marber's Closer all suggest that human beings, as purely sexual creatures, are inconstant at best, vicious at worst.

Pronounced like "come closer," not "one who closes," Marber's Closer follows four Londoners on a romantic rondelay, although "romance" is too gentle a word for their cycles of attraction and faithlessness. One of the characters is a dermatologist, which well suits Marber's own clinical viewpoint of perpetually lonely people craving skin contact. Young theater company Rogue Planet gives Closer a raw production that doesn't shy away from the play's lewd dialogue and pessimistic attitude.

A London car accident brings together at least two of the characters, as obituary writer Dan (David Kronawitter) takes the superficially injured stripper Alice (Jen Apgar) to the hospital. Dan is put off -- and turned on -- when Alice begins to flirt with him in the E.R. waiting room. She explains that she's a good stripper because she knows the opposite sex: "Men want a girl who looks like a boy ... one who comes like a train, but with elegance."

Dan is thoroughly smitten with Alice, which makes it a shock when he's so sexually forward in the subsequent scene with photographer Anna (Stacy Melich). It turns out that months have passed, and not only have Alice and Dan been together some time, she's inspired him to write a novel. As Anna shoots the dust jacket photo, Dan propositions her.

Shot down but increasingly obsessed with Anna, Dan creepily impersonates her in an Internet chat room, striking up a raunchy conversation with young doctor Larry (Jayson Smith). Instant message scenes are becoming common in plays, but Closer has the first I've seen in which none of the actors say their lines aloud (they're projected on a screen). Though you have to wait for them to type, it's a more realistic depiction of online conversation and gives the players interesting "business," like the way Smith hums subconsciously while he hits the keyboard.

Dan even sets up a rendezvous between Larry and the unknowing Anna, which leads to the plays most overtly comic moments. Director Montica Pes expertly handles the end of Act 1, with overlapping scenes of two couples driven by the revelation of an ongoing affair. Apgar and Smith especially give furious, self-lacerating speeches full of abasement and the threat of violence.

Closer spans more than four years, at times making leaps of at least a year, which can be dislocating: Two people meet poorly, then the next time we see them, they're lovers. At times this proves confusing; by the play's end, it appears that one estranged couples gets together and breaks up again entirely off-stage. The time leaps make Closer reminiscent of Harold Pinter's reverse-order infidelity play Betrayal, only forward -- in more ways than one.

Marber's diagnosis of male/female dynamics tends to be sharp and insightful, while bits about faking orgasms and "mercy fucks" suggest how "Seinfeld" used to regularly mention the unmentionable. For a play so suffused with the carnal, Closer has no actual nudity, although a steamy lap-dance scene comes close.

As Dan, Kronawitter seems to hold something in reserve even when he's confessing intimate feelings. That may simply reflect Dan's nature as a cold customer because it's hard to imagine the role being played sympathetically. You believe the chemistry between all of the players, but none more so than minxy Alice and guilt-ridden Anna, with sparks especially flying between Apgar and Melich in a second-act spurned-woman confrontation.

In Closer the characters give and "re-gift" a Newton's Cradle, one of those toys with the suspended metal balls that knock each other to and fro. Those spheres resemble the roles here; as one "bumps" into another, the impact moves through the rest. Near the play's end, Larry remarks, "Everyone learns, nobody changes," one of those insights that, like the rest of Closer, seems true but incomplete. Given Marber's great gifts as a compelling playwright, it would be nice to see him try a little tenderness.

Closer plays through Oct. 14 at the Art Farm, 835 Wylie St., at 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sun. $10-12. 404-627-6160.

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