Few stage sights are as thrilling as a cast of genuinely hungry actors, especially when they have genuinely meaty material to tear into. My Verona Productions' Closer is a biting, at times painful, piece, yet it's suffused with joy; the actors seem to be relishing the opportunity to verbally claw, scrape, and expose (often self-inflicted) wounds.

Patrick Marber's explicit, four-character drama - a sexual roundelay between Anna (Emily Burr), Dan (Tristan Layne Tapscott), Larry (Greg Ball), and Alice (Kasandra Merrill) - has some emotional heft and a fair degree of insight; the playwright astutely observes that, when faced with sexual humiliation and deceit, men become frightened, impotent wrecks while women gain resolve and strength of character.

But the not-so-guilty pleasure of Closer is that the nastier the characters act toward one another, the more fun the audience has. Nearly every confrontation in the play suggests the worst conversation you could possibly have with your lover - or with their lover - but My Verona's production isn't the least bit draining. It is, in fact, closer to exhilarating.

Director Lora Adams and her cast use their limited stage space at ComedySportz extraordinarily well. For long stretches, the characters barely move, yet Adams orchestrates the rhythm of her scenes with such wit that you're continuously riveted by their encounters, and her direction is often ingenious: A restaurant scene in which Alice divides her time between the two men is incredibly clever (I loved how Dan's cocktail effortlessly became Anna's cocktail), and even Closer's scene changes are imaginative; by necessity, Closer's actors are responsible for the moving of set pieces and props, yet Adams stages these moments as continuing movements in the ballet, with the actors staying in physical and emotional character, so these near-blackouts wind up revealing more character insight. (There's a memorable moment when Ball and Burr turn the set into Dan's bedroom and walk offstage hand in hand, their characters' relationship growing beyond the implications of the script.)

Adams is also blessed with a cast adept at subverting expectation. Initially, Tapscott's geniality and good humor seem absolutely genuine. (Tapscott has a sweet, beautiful smile; you miss it when it's gone.) But you gradually realize that it's a front; the casually cruel Dan might be Closer's most insidious figure. Tapscott's lightness of spirit plays off his character's darkness beautifully; when Dan verbally annihilates Alice, Tapscott's puppy-dog earnestness and "sincere" apologies are enough to make your skin crawl. Tapscott's Dan is all the more hateful for being so damned nice about it.

There's nothing nice, however, about Greg Ball's Larry. Playing a wormy, sex-addicted nebbish, the actor invests his vile diatribes with force and conviction, and he's often monstrously funny. Ball gets the play's most exquisitely decadent lines and delivers them for all they're worth; no one would want to be caught in the path of one of his insults.

Emily Burr, with her inscrutable deadpan giving way to subtle emotional shifts, gives Closer a human context. Statuesque and self-assured, Burr is Closer's coolest cucumber, and her naturalistic line readings have a gentleness that complements the others' more demonstrative emoting. Emily Burr's work here is delicately nuanced; she's an oasis of calm in a testosterone-heavy desert. (And Burr's short, straight hair, swept to the side, is a great prop, suggesting a no-nonsense gal who, with or without these ridiculous men hounding her, can handle herself just fine.)

As for Merrill's Alice, many of her put-downs - against Burr, especially - sound forced, as if she were cat-fighting on a nighttime soap like Dynasty. But when Alice drops her guard and begins to suffer, Merrill becomes enormously touching. The actress nails Alice's desperation and inscrutability, and Merrill's inherent innocence makes the men's treatment of her character more sickening, and Alice's eventual vengeance all the more satisfying. Taken together, this is a dream of an ensemble.

Closer is a bristling, at times even moving, accomplishment - sharply staged and ferociously performed - and an auspicious season-opener for this fledgling production company. In the program's "A Note from the Producers," it is stated that My Verona plans to present their productions "in ways that are fresh, new, innovative, and interesting."

So far, so very good.

For tickets, call (309)786-7733, extension 2.

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