An actress going buck naked on stage doesn't give Closer the sexual chemistry it demands.

The stripper alone should make Patrick Marber's play Closer a red-hot ticket. The character's name is Alice Ayres, and in a scene in the second act, she performs a seductive dance for a man named Larry. In the debut production by Enter Stage Left, in residence at Teatro Dallas, the stripping sequence is enhanced not just by the beautiful bod of actress Samantha Chancellor, but by live video projection. From every angle, the audience can see Alice undulating—in living color or on a big screen in black and white—as she slowly and deliberately cock-teases Larry, a dermatologist whose wife, Anna, has run off with Alice's lover, Dan.

Closer is a firecracker, an anti-romantic British drama-com that should explode with a satisfying bang after two hours of burning its fuse. It's all about sex, of the marital and extra-marital varieties, with the two couples switching partners and then switching back again, to the detriment of everyone involved. Somebody's always sleeping with someone else's significant other in this 1997 play, which was made into a star-studly 2004 movie starring Jude Law, Clive Owen, Julia Roberts and Natalie Portman.

Unbridled lust is never an easy thing to convey in live theater, particularly when the audience is near enough to the acting arena to detect false moves. And there are few acting spaces so intimate as Teatro Dallas, where the three rows of seats are sardined so tightly you have to strain to hear the low-talking actors over the rumbling stomachs of hungry playgoers sitting nearby. Because the success of the stage version of Closer is staked mainly on the sizzle among the four actors playing Alice, Dan, Anna and Larry, they'd better steam it up pretty realistically. The audience should feel uncomfortable, yet thrilled, to be made into voyeurs.

Jessica Layman and Chad Halbrook don’t get anywhere close to turning up the heat onstage.
Jessica Layman and Chad Halbrook don’t get anywhere close to turning up the heat onstage.
Closer continues through April 18 at Teatro Dallas. Call 972-754-2672.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit continues through April 19 at Dallas Children’s Theater. Call 214-740-0051.

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So it's a disappointment that only half of Enter Stage Left's cast gets anywhere close to the smoldering looks and feverish sexual temperature Closer requires. The production takes a humpy play and makes it a glum study in men behaving badly.

As Alice, Chancellor gives the most authentic and wide-open performance, baring her feelings and all but a few centimeters of her torso. She's still a journeyman actor, but in this production, she excels at exuberantly giving herself over to the sexuality. This Alice is a fragile sprite who's been betrayed or abandoned by everyone in her life. The sex trade allows her some degree of revenge against men, as well as a means of self-punishment. She's a girl who needs protecting, but neither Dan nor Larry is up to the job. As Chancellor plays her, even when she's clothed, Alice is emotionally naked.

Matching Chancellor's intensity is Chad Cline as Larry, the shlumpy young doctor vacillating between the high of thinking he's hot stuff and the slough of low self-esteem. Cline has a rough, Seth Rogen-esque appeal—scruffy facial hair, soft roll around his middle—but he's also a skillful portrayer of hurt. In that strip club scene, he's really good at turning from non-threatening teddy bear to sleazy bully as he tries to talk Alice into letting him touch her. Later, as he seethes with anger at unfaithful wife Anna, the actor uses his whole body, not just the bite of Marber's words, to express his fury.

That leaves the other two actors stuck in the deep freeze. Chad Halbrook is Dan, a newspaper obit writer who exploits Alice's life story by stealing it for his novel. Jessica Layman is Anna, a photographer working on large portraits of strangers. They first meet in her studio, where Dan has come for a book-jacket photo. Their repartee immediately turns into verbal foreplay, and it should be fairly obvious in that early scene that these two are destined for a messy affair.

Trouble is, there is not a scintilla of sexual chemistry between Halbrook and Layman. He is a handsome guy, but his facial expression never changes. Instead of a penetrating gaze, Halbrook projects a blank, catatonic stare. And at the end, when his Dan character is supposed to be a broken shell of a man, Halbrook simply curls into a fetal position on the couch and buries his head—a cheap cop-out that alleviates the actor from having to do much acting.

Layman plays only two emotions, angry and terrified. Under harsh lighting (by designer Jeff Hurst) that makes her look about 45, the 26-year-old actress often hunches over and hugs her knees, as if trying to doodlebug into a defensive posture. She's a big Debbie Downer as Anna, wearing droopy, wrinkled slacks and too-tight dresses that don't flatter. Her make-out scenes with both of the Chads come off as unnatural and over-choreographed by director Jason Folks. It's her arm here, his hand there, and heads banging awkwardly somewhere in the middle—as oomph-free as an acting class exercise.

And the biggest mistake in this production has been to abandon the British-ness of the piece. With the actors' flat American voices, having the characters use "knackered" and "nappies" and talk about meeting at Blackfriars Bridge just confuses things. Who are these people, expatriates who prefer bedding only their own kind? And how does a girl like Alice get an ecdysiastic overseas work visa?

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