Seeking what's missing

Reflections: A new play at Fell's Point Corner Theatre and the film `In the Mood for Love' make for an interesting double-feature on the subject of absence.

March 22, 2001|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

Absence makes a powerful presence, stirring up want, need, luscious anticipation. It's a tough trick to sustain these notions on stage or film, but it happens that complementary renditions are playing in Baltimore now, as Fell's Point Corner Theatre performs "Closer" and the Charles Theatre runs the film "In the Mood for Love" - a double-feature marking spring's nasty mix of memory and desire, as the poem goes.

On the card-table-sized stage at Fell's Point and the biggest screen at the Charles there are two foursomes in throes of infidelity, jealousy, and pursuit of something imagined and just beyond reach. In style and approach the two works could hardly be more dissimilar, which makes seeing them back-to-back that much better for after-show conversation or solitary contemplation at the supermarket checkout. It's fitting that these works would linger in mind, with "In the Mood for Love" trailing a lover's perfume, and "Closer" leaving the miasma of stale booze.

Either way, the territory is only as distant as comfort requires. At the intermission of "Closer," a spectator was overheard saying to no one in particular that the show made him glad he was 70 years old and long since done with all that - which makes you wonder if he really is. He was attending the show "alone," accompanied, one assumes, by memories.

His reaction was easy enough to understand, since British playwright Patrick Marber shows sexual relationships as a cross between minefield and covert ops. If you remember the moment in "Saving Private Ryan" when the bewildered soldier at Omaha Beach picks up his severed arm and staggers off, well, you're getting the general idea.

Nobody comes out of "Closer" whole, but neither did they go in that way. They're all looking for some missing piece, and the longer the play goes on the less it seems that the missing piece resides in the world outside themselves. These four people are shadow-boxing, only the shadows are at least as "real" as they are, and they're not just punching back, they're pulling out switchblades.

Anna says to her lover, Dan, that he doesn't necessarily "make" her reach orgasm, she just does so, while he is, well, "in the area providing valiant assistance."

So perhaps "love" isn't the right word. Nor romance. Both play and movie leave you double-checking definitions: love, need, desire, want, romance, fear, loneliness. A person could get confused teasing these things apart, and credit goes to the Fell's Point crew and the folks who made "In the Mood for Love" for tossing audiences headlong into the morass.

Barry Feinstein directs a fine quartet of actors in "Closer," a story of chance meetings, couplings and uncouplings set in contemporary London. Dan (Ben Thomas) the frustrated writer/journalist accidentally meets a former stripper named Alice (Lydia Lea Real). Sure, Dan is involved with someone else, but soon enough he and Alice are a couple. Then Dan runs into photographer Anna (Cherie Weinert), and wants her, too, then goes into an online sex chat room posing as a woman and bumps into dermatologist Larry (Mark E. Campion), who winds up with Anna. It's a game of musical beds told in explicitly sexual language, and it's about as erotic as a Teamsters meeting.

In "In the Mood for Love," on the other hand, no sexual word is spoken nor deed shown, yet the screen fairly perspires. Wong Kar-wai directs Tony Leung as Chow, a frustrated writer/journalist, and Maggie Cheung as Li-zhen, a secretary to a shipping company executive. They're neighbors in Hong Kong who discover that their spouses - who never appear on screen and who are on business trips - are having an affair with each other. In the cramped house where they have adjoining apartments, Chow and Li-zhen can hardly avoid meeting each other, exchanging forlorn looks and eventually seeking consolation in each others' company if not each others' embrace.

Not unlike their spouses, consummation is everywhere and nowhere. Wong Kar-wai makes its absence palpable. It's as if the filmmaker took a cue from writer Roland Barthes, who sees the absence of the other as a space you occupy, a potentially overpowering force: "Simultaneously, I desire and I need. Desire is squashed against need: that is the obsessive phenomenon of all amorous sentiment."

Time warps in such circumstances. While both play and movie unfold over four years, playwright Marber specifies in the published script that time references should be suppressed; director Wong Kar-wai makes time a motif. Clocks are forever looming. Chow and Li-zhen live in continuous anticipation, occasionally jumping into the future by "rehearsing" emotional confrontations. Moments are underscored in slow-motion, as if the "present" exists in quotes, distorted in memory or obliterated in imagining the future.

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