Portland Center Stage, 241-1802
Through Feb 11

There's a mid-'90s comedy film in which a sweet granny character swears like a sailor, saying, "Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuckety-fuck." That scene kept playing in my head like a surreal mantra as I sat in the audience of Closer, Portland Center Stage's newest production. You can't say they didn't warn you, what with graphic language banners on the posters and advertising and a pre-show warning. And still, there were the toupeed and blue-rinsed old theatre farts dropping their dentures as the characters on stage discussed masturbating, wearing wet knickers, ass-ramming, and cumshots on the face.

Shocking the mainstream seems to be one goal of PCS's Closer, a show by British playwright Patrick Marber, in which Dan (Kevin Corstange) is an obituary writer who longs to write a best-selling book but lacks a muse. She arrives in the form of Alice (Elizabeth Reaser), a young stripper whom he rescues after she's hit by a cab. At the hospital, she is attended to by Dr. Larry (Daniel Freedom Stewart), an early-40s dermatologist. Larry unwittingly has internet cybersex with Dan, and is set-up to meet Anna (Diedrie N. Henry), a photographer with roots in high society, and unfulfilled passion.

Over the course of a dozen scenes, the characters fall in love and lust. Although the closest we ever see to nudity is Alice pseudo-stripping in a Catholic school-girl outfit, and no body fluids are exchanged on stage, the sheer amount of sex talk is equivalent to an entire season of Sex in the City.

Full of energy, Stewart and Henry are so unbelievably explosive and gripping that they seem to be in an entirely different production than the low-key Corstange and Reaser. Stewart's Larry is definitely the character most people will want to like--he's the only one who doesn't cheat and who has a conscience--even in a first act closing scene that sent chills through the nerve endings of the entire audience.

The staging and direction of the play is strong, especially in scenes in which the actors play with time and space in a fluidic way. Least likable are Closer's script and story. Beyond its flashy pornographic dialogue, it seems to bring little insight into relationships. We see cheating and lies and compromises, but nowhere are solutions evident. Marber seems to be telling us that love is all about infidelity and psychological manipulation of the partner, where the most important question is not "Do you love me?" but is instead, "Did you fuck him/her?" It's an unsettling undercurrent, and is perhaps, more of what unnerves the audience than the graphic descriptions of cunts and cocks squishing about.

"Paradise should be shocking," Dan writes during cybersex. Closer has the shocking part down, and some fine staging and acting behind it. But you may come away from it questioning your own sexual/romantic relationships, with no answers easily in sight. Fuckety fuck.