Putting aside the eternal appeal of sex and bad language for a moment, the legacy — and clairvoyance — of D.H. Lawrence’s once banned 1928 novel, Lady Chatterly‘s Lover, lies in the image of a young, newlywed aristocrat named Clifford returning to Britain from service in the Great War, paralyzed from the waist down and therefore unable to sire descendants (which prompts his father to die “of chagrin”). To compensate for his feelings of, well, paralysis, Clifford becomes a local coal baron, a north-of-England Andrew Carnegie, trundling through the moors in a motorized wheelchair while exuding a haughty disdain for those who shovel the wealth from his mines into his bank account. Clifford’s comparatively class-sensitive adultress-bride, ironically named Constance, may or may not have indulged in her fling with their gameskeeper had her husband been virile, but the fact that he is not serves as one of the most telling emblems of changing sexual identities in the 20th century — the plight of the superfluous man.

With biotechnologies like in vitro fertilization, and as shifting economic and social mores have resulted in more women entering the workplace, the medieval magnetism that brought together modern knights errant and damsels in distress, then glued them in matrimony out in the ‘burbs, has been losing its grip for decades. The result is what might be best described as no man’s land, in which those of us with a higher center of gravity aren‘t actually needed, biologically or financially. Our emotional value to women, accrued more in mythological than hard currency, may be all we have left in the domestic arena.

Which renders men’s already fragile self-importance something of a mirage and which is why Clifford‘s injury, as a metaphor, is so prophetic. Indeed, the hell of living within marriage — so eloquently captured by Lawrence in John Vreeke and Mary Machala’s faithful stage adaptation of Lady Chatterly‘s Lover, playing at Pacific Resident Theater — is now being replaced by the hell of living without it, in the isolation ward of narcissists and neurotics sketched in English playwright Patrick Marber’s latest work, Closer, at the Mark Taper Forum.

Marber‘s Dealer’s Choice, seen at the Taper in 1998 and also directed by Robert Egan, was primarily about cards, gambling and life‘s uncertainties, as told by a playwright whose rimshot dialogue revealed his background as a standup comedian. It was, or at least appeared to be, a better play than Closer, perhaps because it was fueled by a Mamet-like machismo, a directorial timbre at which Egan excels.

Closer — here on the bounce from London, New York and Chicago — studies that very machismo, dissecting it in a Schnitzler-like 12-scene La Ronde of two heterosexual couples living in London. (It also follows in the footsteps of Noel Coward’s Private Lives, which takes a pair of spouses and similarly skewers them on a spit of recriminating repartee, effervescent wit and the eternal themes of class, intimacy and deception.) Many of Closer‘s limitations have to do with the writing itself, which draws largely from the soap-operatic, cheap-thrill discovery of infidelity, and somehow fails to distinguish between the truths and truisms of romantic partnerships (more on that shortly). But the production’s drawbacks become evident in the first couple of scenes, when the two principal women, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Rebecca De Mornay, are hung out to dry — at least compared to their male counterparts, Christopher Evan Welch and Randle Mell. This is not the actresses‘ fault: It’s apparent from their charisma and technique that Gyllenhaal and De Mornay are dynamic performers whose nonetheless inert interpretations have been staged, but not directed. This is particularly striking in a comedy about the ever-shifting emotional intersections where men and women meet.

Tellingly, the strongest scenes in Egan‘s production are between the two men — dermatologist Larry (Mell), who’s worked his way up from the East End; and obit writerfailed novelist Dan (Welch). One scene, a comedic riff, has the guys seated on opposite sides of the stage at their respective computers, tapping out pornographic missives to each other (broadcast on a suspended screen), as Dan plays the role of his own lover, Anna (De Mornay), a highbrow photographer who shoots lowbrow misery for her posh exhibits. In a cruel comic joke, Dan arranges a liaison between penpal Larry and a fictitious Anna. In a crueler cosmic joke, the real Anna and Larry actually meet, precisely at the location and time Dan had arranged. Within a few weeks, they‘re betrothed.

In an Act 2 scene — months later, in Larry’s office — the two men, who still barely know each other, battle over Anna, whom Dan had bedded even while Larry was courting her, then through their marriage and separation. Here forlorn and rejected, Dan has hitherto appeared as the suave philanderer who has spurned the devotion of the damsel he once rescued from a car accident — waifstripper Alice (Gyllenhaal). Larry, on the other hand, has until now come across as sweetly self-effacing. In this scene, however, the gents‘ qualities are, in a way, inverted, revealing an emotional sweep well harnessed by the actors, from Dan’s fit of weeping to Larry‘s newfound powers of condescension. If the men’s scenes with the women had a similar charge — of intimacy mingled with cruelty — this production might have ignited. Instead, one wishes somebody would give these fellows a deck of cards and the script of Dealer‘s Choice.

Remarkably, for their playing women at opposite ends of the social spectrum — and even with their authentic-sounding dialects — both Glyllenhaal and De Mornay’s performances seem cut from the same cloth, with lines blurted rather than spoken and interpretations emanating from the performers‘ own, admittedly appealing qualities, here steaming along full throttle without a rudder.

David Jenkins’ set — a quartet of aluminum-rimmed chairs, plywood platforms and backdrops of corrugated fiberglass and brick, accompanied somewhat jarringly by the idiosyncratic strains of Bjork (sound design by Jon Gottlieb) — folds right into the production‘s industrial-clinical tone.

Finally, though, there’s the play itself, a roundelay in which the final rounds seem an exercise in redundancy and diminishing returns. Though there‘s a geometric beauty to Marber’s structure, around which human billiard balls ricochet before drifting apart, what are we supposed to glean from people who spend all their free time discussing ex-lovers, mostly for the sake of unnerving their current partners or friends? Is the view that there‘s little erotic mystique to nice men and needy women, and that we desire what we can’t have, supposed to pass for earth-shattering insight? It might, if you‘re in the 10th grade.

Lady Chatterly’s Lover is so much stronger. Director Vreeke, who originally staged the adaptation for Seattle‘s Book It repertory, has ably translated Lawrence’s third-person narrative into dramatic action, so that each member of the ensemble (Lesley Fera, Michael Tulin, Timothy Murphy, Andi Carnick, Amy Warner and Bruce French) can comment upon his or her own and others‘ characters in asides that, miraculously, feel neither labored nor like an intrusion upon the dialogue.

The narration is vital: Were the adaptation merely dialogue, the result would be the pornography that Lawrence was once accused of writing. In the narrative lies the literary justification for why Constance betrays her invalid husband, Clifford (Tulin), for hours of sex in the straw with their robust gameskeeper, Mellors (the excellent Murphy). No rimshots here, and no cheap thrills; Constance’s thrills come very expensive indeed, drawing Lawrence‘s condemnation of the artificial barriers between the classes, as well as those between the lives of the flesh and the mind. As Constance begins to physically implode, Clifford tells her he’s sympathetic with her need for sex, encouraging her to holiday in Venice; if she returns pregnant, he says, he‘ll treat the child as his own. But he feels less magnanimous toward her as he begins to command power in the town, and learns that she’s been fucking his own employee right under his nose — constituting a threat to his masculinity and his social position, and a comment on how the two are intertwined. In an example of Lawrence‘s antiquated socialism, Mellors complains that industrial labor physically and spiritually turns men into twisted husks, incapable of feeling — as though sexual repression and pornography had never been heard of before the industrial revolution. But at least the work’s emotional tone rings truer than its philosophical one.

As Constance, Fera is one of those performers who, like Kaitlin Hopkins, has a hypnotic aura under the stage lights, as amorphous clouds of self-possession, intelligence and silky sensuality keep folding into each other. This isn‘t to belittle the others in the grand cast who, similarly, find the musicality in Lawrence’s words and agility in their own movements, all the while generating a fair amount of heat from the story‘s none-too-subtle erotic charge.

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