Well, whaddayaknow! This year’s blonde is last year’s blonde -- and nobody’s more amazed about that than Natasha Richardson herself. Even before the dust could settle on the Tony she got last June as Cabaret’s uninhibited Sally Bowles, she has boomeranged back to Broadway to play another brazen Brit -- one of the cool, contemporary customers found between, and under, the covers of Patrick Marber’s dark, searing play, Closer.
Yes, the color of Her Blondeness is basically the same, but the cut is more stylish. “It won’t be Sally hair,” she insists. “I’m not going to look like a messed-up slut. I’ll look like an artist, somebody who works -- somebody who’s very feminine, I hope.”
Hope, of course, won’t have anything to do with it. Class and breeding and sheer ability will see her down this latest road to rocky erotica. When you think about it, Richardson’s whole theatre career in this country embraces only about three Broadway blocks and never veers from the Primrose Path. When she first came on as the new girl in town, she was the Roundabout’s Anna Christie, Eugene O’Neill’s weary Scandinavian wanton who finds redemption in the love of a good man (played by Liam Neeson, a very good man indeed for Richardson); both performers won Tony nominations, and the production itself took the Tony for Best Revival of 1994. Last year, she made her musical debut in the Roundabout-renovated Kit Kat Klub on 43rd Street, and, in addition to the Tony she won for her work in Cabaret, the Roundabout wound up with another for Best Revival of 1998.
Now she’s back on 45th Street, three theatres down from the Roundabout at the Music Box, in Closer, an opus with its own cluster of English awards (the 1998 Olivier Award for Best New Play, the 1998 Critics’ Circle winner for Best Play, the 1997 Time Out Award for Best West End Play and the 1997 Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy).
Although he had no compunction whatsoever about picking up that last prize, Marber has publicly admitted that he did not realize he had written a comedy. Indeed, the general feeling seems to be that if this is rib tickling, then the author is using a stiletto, operating treacherously close to the raw, exposed nerves of modern-day man-woman relationships. The given is two couples and how they never completely add up. Dan, an obituary writer-turned-novelist (Rupert Graves), cheats on his stripper girlfriend, Alice (Anna Friel), with his portrait photographer, Anna (Richardson), who is married to Larry (Ciaran Hinds), a pornography-loving dermatologist smitten with the stripper -- and around they go in ever widening circles. Marber, whose gambling background enabled him to write his previous hit Dealer’s Choice, plays every possible combination. Even the guys unwittingly hook up on the Internet for an obscene chat, a perfect sign-of-the-times fillip.
“This won’t be a play for everyone,” cautions Richardson. “It’s for an intelligent theatregoer who wants to see something exciting and raw and new, but it’s going to shock people. Some people won’t like it, and that’s fine because I think it’s important to make people feel and react and think, not necessarily to make them feel good or a bit teary.”
She includes herself as someone who was initially upset by Closer. “I was scared by the play when I saw it in London. Some of the things that are said are personal to me. Some of it touches areas in my life. It’s a difficult, but perhaps cathartic, place for me to go.”
But go she must, and go she did, although she put up a good struggle against doing the play. “I turned it down three times,” she recalls. “The producers were very insistent. After the third time I said no -- and it was always not because I didn’t like the play but because it was too soon for me to go back in the theatre -- I spent the whole weekend letting the idea settle in that I had passed this up. A special piece of contemporary writing like Closer does not come along very often, and I thought, ‘I’ve missed a great opportunity,’ so I called them back after the weekend and said, ‘I’ve made a mistake. Will you still have me?’ Thank goodness, they said yes.”
The contemporary setting was a key attraction to Closer for Richardson: Broadway would finally see her as a woman of her own times. “It’s interesting playing someone who is much closer to myself. In a funny way, that presents a different kind of challenge. I don’t know if I can explain why it seems to be equally difficult to pull out something that’s close to you as something that’s further away. Maybe you can lose yourself more in a character that’s different. I am different. This woman is not the same as I am, but there are areas of our lives where we’ve been in similar situations.”
Richardson felt her own difference would make a different Closer on Broadway. “I thought if I did it, I would need to bring something different to it, so Patrick and I had many talks before I finally decided to come on board. The London cast was great, but I’m a different person. I bring a slightly different sensibility to it. I’m an actress who loves Williams and O’Neill, so I’m more emotional. I just feel it’s going to be different here -- a more human approach to the play, a less cool approach. Less analytical and more heart.”
The only obstruction to Richardson’s vision is that Marber has upped the ante and is directing the piece himself, so she counts this as something of a mixed blessing. “It’s great in some ways and very difficult in others,” she says. “It’s great because he knows whenever you’re in trouble. He knows the whole back story, the intention behind every line. But it’s also quite hard because he has a very specific view of how it should be, and sometimes, if you have a different approach, it’s hard to contradict him because he’s the author.”
One of the producers most insistent that Richardson do Closer is an ex-husband, Robert Fox. “We were together for eight years, but we were only married for two of those years,” she says. Then along came Anna Christie and Liam Neeson, her husband of four years and the father of her two young sons. “Anna Christie was one of the best experiences of my professional life. It was the moment when the director and the piece and Liam and I all came together. It’s a thrilling experience when you know that there’s something kind of electric happening.” Privately, her marriage to Fox didn’t survive the shock, but they have remained friends in the best British stiff-upper-lip fashion. “It doesn’t feel very Noel Coward,” she admits. “It feels like Closer. You’ll know what I mean when you see it.”