The Aquarium 

POTS presents a pair of plays for the voyeur in all of us.

Some people like to watch, or so I hear. Gives 'em a thrill. They like to sit quietly in the dark, just outside of the spotlight, and watch others go at it. They like to watch actors going at it, feeding on one another, teasing one another, pushing one another harder and harder as they race toward the climax and subsequent denouement. Such people might be interested in a pair of Playhouse on the Square productions, Dinner With Friends at the Playhouse stage and Closer at TheatreWorks. Both are fine actor-driven plays that provide the audience the thrill of peeking in on what should be private, and in some cases rather intimate, moments in the lives of the characters. The subjects at hand are sex and love, two lonely planets which, on occasion, brush very close together as they orbit around the gaseous fireball of the human ego.

Patrick Marber's Closer, the "edgier" of the two POTS offerings and a mystery of sorts, follows the course of classic erotica, where the protagonists, like Dante's doomed Epicureans, burn eternally and without cessation for their crimes of pleasure and passion. Donald Margulies' Dinner With Friends, though firmly rooted in a rather whitebread, middle-class milieu, is in the end more satisfying. It also uses, though more subtly than Closer, various tropes of the potboiler to keep tensions in place, but in this case, the mystery is the disparity between sex and love and our inability to ever really know the people we think we know best. Neither of the two shows is particularly original, but both are prime, sometimes painfully funny examples of how much one may discover even in such familiar territory. Both are testaments to the power of invisible direction and committed ensemble acting, where the only star onstage is the playwright.

Remember all those 1960s jet-set flicks about high times in swinging England, those odes to eternal youth and fashion, which have been distilled over the past 40 years into the grotesque image of the "shagadelic" Austin Powers? Well, forget all of that, baby. In the post-Clinton, neo-Victorian prudery of the age, the class-conscious Closer reads more like Pride and Prejudice than anything by Henry Miller or its more obvious antecedents. Or perhaps it is a latter-day Le Ronde, where desolation, not disease, is the order of the day.

It begins with Alice (the positively disarming Rebecca Gibel), a young stripper who throws herself in front of cars either to kill herself or meet men, whichever comes first. She has a scar on her thigh shaped like a question mark and may not be who she seems, not that it matters. Alice meets an obit writer and would-be novelist (Alex Jacobs) who in turn meets a liberal-minded photographer (Courtney Oliver), thus driving young Alice (or so she claims) into the arms of a doctor/reformed punk-rocker (Ben Hensley) who really just wants to be with the liberal-minded photographer. And so it goes, round and round. It's about people who use sex rather than have, let alone enjoy, it, and it makes you long for the innocence of the age of Aquarius when sometimes a cigar was just a cigar.

Dinner With Friends follows in the footsteps of innumerable art-house flicks by linking the sensual pleasures of food preparation with the characters' various sexual predicaments. The emotional landscape of DWF, however, is more like something from Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which is to say that bitterness and rapture can be one and the same and mysterious tragedies brew where communication fails. It is, on the surface, the story of how a happy family copes with the breakup of their best friends and the little sacrifices that are part and parcel of commitment. It's the content boiling underneath the surface of this often funny and oddly upsetting play that sets it apart.

Jonathan Lamer does a phenomenal job keeping an unlikable character in the game till the final buzzer. He is boyishly oblivious as Tom, the unfaithful, sex-obsessed husband who may or may not be as bad as he seems. It's a tightrope performance matched only by his counterpart Kyle Barnette, who, as Gabe, a food writer who reeks with the joys of domesticity, is haunted by the suspicion he is somehow missing out on something important -- well, big sex anyway. Kim Justis is excellent, per usual, as Karen, a devoted wife and happy cook who lives in a colorful world but moralizes in black-and-white. Leigh Nichols is likewise fine as Beth, a flaky artist and unfortunate victim of self-actualization.

There is very little in Dinner With Friends that hasn't been done before, but, somehow, this seemingly straightforward piece about infidelity and fallout manages to be much greater than the sum of its parts. It's also a fine companion piece to Closer, which is playing only a block away.

Closer and Dinner With Friends through July 28th.

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