By Patrick Marber (Repertory Theatre of St. Louis)

For the quartet in award-winning British playwright Patrick Marber's Closer, falling in love is the moment between pulling the pin from the grenade and letting the grenade fly across the battlefield -- an eternity in an instant, with the possibility that one might be killed in the process. On its face, this is a true punk-rock sentiment, nearly a quarter-century after the initial movement. Yet the character you'd expect would be the most emotionally feckless, itinerant twentysomething stripper Alice, turns out to be the most stout-hearted. And the bloke who would appear to be the most bourgeois, fortysomething dermatologist Larry, has reconciled his yen for hedonism with a craving for domestic stability that might have impressed Lord Byron. Such reversals and unexpected twists animate the Rep's fine production of this newish play.

Alice and Larry's foils are Dan, an obituary writer who meets Alice when a cab knocks her down, and Anna, the photographer who becomes the object of both men's desire. Closer is a soap opera with an upmarket urban setting, written in a dozen shotgun scenes. The premise is that Dan is infatuated with Alice, who's in love with him until he meets Anna, with whom he becomes obsessed to the point that he uses her name while having cybersex with a stranger, who turns out to be Larry the doctor, who accidentally meets Anna, who fulfills all of his dreams except an ongoing preoccupation with pornography and mercantile sex, which means, naturally, that he'll soon cross paths with Alice. Each scene's brevity means that only the barest of bones are revealed, and Marber has a real talent for suspense, as well as a drolly dark view of humanity. Early in the relationship with Anna, Larry comments, "All my nasty habits amuse her." But Alice, a true faux naïf, gets the wittiest and most mordant lines. "Lying is the most fun a girl can have without taking her clothes off, but it's better if you do," she says in her stripper persona.

Closer reunites the cast of the Rep's earlier production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and here the women get to play entirely different types. Ashley West -- a superbly recessive Honey -- plays Alice with full-on geniality and bravado; Carolyn Swift, who played an over-the-top Martha, here portrays Anna with cool indifference. Oddly, both Larry and Dan (Anderson Matthews and Chris Hietikko, respectively) seem like direct descendants of George and Nick. Both men are on the verge of being crushed by their incomprehension of the consequences of their own appetites. At the Rep, accents oscillate wildly, although Matthews seems to have the surest grip on his London inflections as Larry, who's a diamond and then a zircon in the rough. Director Steven Woolf has found the cruel humor in much of this; the pacing is brisk and played for laughs. John Ezell's superb set is both cold and inviting. Yet it becomes very difficult to care about these four, in part because the playwright has written himself into a box and sacrificed depth for one-liners. By the end of Act 2, he has given us a halfhearted catfight between the women and a testosterone duel for the men, but the jokes have overcome humanity to become mere gender stereotyping.

Closer continues through April 9.