Patrick Marber's Closer, first staged in England in 1997 and made into a film in 2004, is here staged by Joking Apart Theater. The show provides a vigorously jaundiced view of romance (and humanity in general) that alternately fascinates and batters. In the opening scene, Dan (Josh Jabas) has taken Alice (Heidi Bakke) to the hospital after witnessing her getting hit by a taxicab. Chemistry ensues, despite the fact that Alice, a bit of a strumpet, is quite a bit younger than Dan, a reserved fellow who writes newspaper obituaries and dreams of literary success. He doesn't have long to wait, for the play leaps across months and years from scene to scene, and soon enough his novel is published. Complicating matters is his sudden undying love for Anna (Dan, you see, is a bit of a drip), a photographer who specializes in shooting impoverished strangers and exhibiting the results in posh galleries. She is dating a dermatologist named Larry (Edwin Strout), whom she eventually marries. Ah, but there's the nagging question of Dan, who will not go away, which leads to a breakup, recombining into different couples, a good deal of using sex for revenge and other dark purposes, and a strange fugue in a strip-club "private room." Much of the work's themes of deception and illusion revolve around Alice, and Bakke plays her with an appropriate mix of utter vulnerability and heartless calculation. Strout gives a mannered but winning performance as a poisonous manipulator, his lines dripping with lugubrious, barely concealed contempt underpinned by Larry's class-based resentment (the show opens to the synthesized strains of Pulp's "Common People"). Natalie Diem's direction gives the production a sense of cohesion, and Steve Kath's set employs an elegantly simple backdrop and spare furniture to make good use of an oft-troublesome room. By the end things are a bit draining, and there were moments when I was amazed that Marber had seen fit to add further layers of degradation and heartbreak upon his hapless characters (save for the blithe Larry, who comes out of things in decent shape). As an anti-Valentine, though, it does the trick, and makes one's own life look like the benevolent dawn following a particularly detailed and squishy nightmare.