Under the careful watch of director Christina Mitropoulou ’04, the four characters in “Closer” are soon revealed to be “sad strangers photographed beautifully,” to borrow a line from this poignant and timely play. Timely, only because Valentine’s Day, of all days, is perfectly suited to contemplation of all things related to love and sex — and such contemplation is thrust upon you most gracefully by Dan, Alice, Anna and Larry as they move in and out of each other’s lives with varying degrees of tact, cruelty, passion and regret.

After rescuing her from the roadside after she was hit by a truck, Dan (Patricio Zambrano-Barragan ’05), the obituary writer, and Alice (Elissa Yudofsky ’03), the stripper, move in together. He captures her bizarre and mysterious life in a novel, and though she is “completely lovable and completely unleaveable,” his love for Alice drops away when he meets Anna, the photographer hired for his book jacket portraits (Ilia Medina ’05). After fruitlessly professing his love for her, Dan decides to have a bit of fun. He tricks the smarmy Larry (Jacob Brogan ’05), by way of a raunchy cybersex session (one of the play’s funniest and most ingeniously staged moments) into a meeting with “Blow Joy,” his online identity. After arriving at the London Zoo aquarium, in his white labcoat (“bring the white coat, no f*** without it”), Larry mistakes Anna for Blow Joy, and the trick is revealed. But no harm is done, as the play now has it’s second pair of lovebirds.

Once these pairings are established, they are free to be broken, and broken they are, in all possible ways and with as catastrophic results as one can imagine. Danny and Anna begin a year long affair, which breaks up both couples, sends Alice back into working at a strip club and turns Larry’s caustic wit into an equally caustic masochism.

The resolution of these upheavals is not pretty, but is strikingly authentic, and provides a comforting reminder that nothing is ever really severed, but simply fades. The tragedy of this play is softened by its dogged conviction that there is still something quite lovely in that which can drive these lovers to such hateful heights of cruelty to one other.

There are problems, of course, but these are very minor and pardonable, given the strength of the play and the overall strength of the acting. Zambrano-Barragan tends to trail off at the end of his lines, making his acting somewhat less credible. His Alice, Yudofsky, isn’t entirely convincing in the extreme sexuality required by her character, a naivete perhaps appropriate to her damaged coquette but certainly incongruous with her usual costume of some very sexy, very scanty lingerie and some expectation that a career stripper would have developed a greater sense of her own irresistibility. Another curious aspect of Alice’s character is her seeming obsession with peeling oranges, which, if somehow a key to her character, is a strange and distracting one.

The most satisfying parts of “Closer” are the scenes between Brogan and Medina, who are superb individually and even better together. They are positively crackling when they flirt, fight and even so much as glance at each other sideways. At one point, Brogan becomes a Hannibal Lecter-esque maniac, letting his usual control over self and character slip, but his severity usually remains believable and wonderfully difficult to watch. His acidic words and manner work beautifully with Medina’s clear-sighted confidence and dripping sexuality, so that when they admit their respective infidelities, and she screams, “He tastes like you but sweeter!” his bitter “That’s the spirit!” has you holding your breath, amazed.

In “Closer,” each of these pairings provide further insight into the beautiful cruelty of love.