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Theater

A Play Against Type

Natasha Richardson is a 'marshmallow' playing a 'toughie' in 'Closer,' and that's a boon and a burden.

April 18, 1999|PATRICK PACHECO | Patrick Pacheco is a regular contributor to Calendar

NEW YORK — In Patrick Marber's excoriating drama "Closer," one of the four characters, a doctor, describes the heart as "a fist wrapped in blood." It is a chilling image that perfectly captures the dark, cynical portrait of love of this icy contemporary British play about two couples who exchange partners in a dance of lust, desire, need and betrayal.

Later in the play, Larry, the doctor, clenches his fist menacingly over his lover Anna, as she unflinchingly--and very graphically--tells him how she has betrayed him sexually.

Natasha Richardson, who plays Anna in the production of "Closer" that just opened on Broadway, is wondering what a nice girl like her is doing in a nasty play like this.

"I told Patrick Marber, 'You write these cold and tough characters, why did you cast a marshmallow like me to play one of them? I won't fit in,' " says the 35-year-old actress during a conversation in her dressing room at the Music Box Theatre last week. "And he said, 'I wanted softies to play toughies.' And that's been the struggle. To be as brutal and tough as the play requires, but keep the heart beating underneath."

As Anna, who is a photographer, Richardson has managed brilliantly to do just that according to the reviews, to bring her luminous beauty and emotional depth back to Broadway in a new light, just one year after winning a Tony for her scarred and pathetic portrait of Sally Bowles in the current revival of "Cabaret."

Surprisingly, Richardson has brought comic timing to the role of Anna as well, mining most of the laughs in the play with her wryly ironic takes on the perennial battle of the sexes. She has a particularly memorable aria about the myth that women have all the emotional baggage and men none. Says Anna, "Then . . . just as you're relaxing . . . a Great Big Juggernaut arrives . . . with their baggage. It Got Held Up. One of the greatest myths men have about women is that we over-pack."

"She's very droll," says Marber, who not only wrote the Olivier Award-winning play, but also directs this production. He cast her along with Ciaran Hinds (Larry) and Rupert Graves (playing a selfish young novelist) and newcomer Anna Friel (the novelist's vulnerable, waif-like lover). "[Richardson has] found a good way of underplaying the comedy and getting the laughs. But she's also drawn to the dangerous edge of things. 'Patty Hearst' and 'The Comfort of Strangers.' That's pretty rough stuff."

"To be honest, I think it's cathartic to explore the pain I've had in my life through my work," Richardson says of her willingness to take on difficult roles, which have included Catherine in "Suddenly Last Summer" and the title role of "Zelda," both of which she did for American television. Nonetheless, the actress had no intention of returning to the stage quite so soon, especially to go from one emotionally bruising role to another. That's why her comic turn last year as the mother in Disney's "The Parent Trap" came as such a welcome relief. But it was during a break in filming "Parent Trap" in London that Richardson saw "Closer" at the Royal National Theatre, before its transfer to the West End. The play made the hair on the back of her neck stand up.

"I thought, 'What a disturbing, raw, funny play about our lives,' and what a kick to do something contemporary. Certainly in my theater work I've been firmly placed in the past," she says, referring to her 1993 Tony-nominated Broadway debut in a revival of Eugene O'Neill's "Anna Christie" and her West End appearances in "The Seagull" and "High Society."

"It's a play that people react to--for good or bad. My friend Ron Rifkin [who co-starred in "Cabaret"] said to me, 'After the first act, I wasn't sure I liked any of these people. At the end, I realized, I am all of these people.' Some people just hate it, get very angry over it, but I like that. It's the reason for doing theater for me, not just to do some 'worthy' play for the sake of it."

Richardson says that embracing the bleak nihilism of the play was not as difficult as the challenge of playing such a strong, confident woman as Anna. "It's weird, because people who don't know me very well think of me as a very sort of competent, cool woman," she says, "because that's my armor, my protective shield. But I'm drawn to the more vulnerable places in one's soul. The witty repartee, the competence of Anna in 'Closer,' I don't naturally gravitate there, strangely enough. She's much more grown-up, a Woman, and I like to play the Girl."

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