You know how, in every single courtroom drama you’ve ever seen, there comes a moment when one of the attorneys seems to be going out of bounds, only to be interrupted by opposing counsel with a sharp, “Objection, your Honor!” And then we cut to the judge who always says the same thing—every time, every show—“I’m going to allow it, but, Counselor, this better be going somewhere.”
As an audience member of the provocative and dynamic play Tender Napalm, you are that oft-seen judge—on the verge of exasperation, but intrigued enough that you keep wanting to see more, with the caveat that, “This better be going somewhere.”
Don’t worry. It is. It’s going to places you’d have never guessed, and to emotional degrees and to heights you wouldn’t have seen coming. Give this challenging play some latitude, and you’ll be rewarded with a moving, sometimes wrenching, theatre-going experience. You’ll also “see” unicorns and serpents and aliens. Sort of.
It starts with just a man and a woman on an empty stage (in the round), staring at each other from a distance. After a long, starting to get uncomfortable, silence, the man says something kind of sexy and complimentary, but with a violent undercurrent that makes one wonder—is he happy with her or does he want to hurt her? It could go either way. When he says, “I could squeeze a bullet through those lips,” is it a promise or a threat?
The ambiguous language is sublime and, in a way, kind of the point of Playwright Philip Ridley’s verbal mind-f*ck. Everyone gets mind-f*cked. The two characters do it to each other, the play does it to the audience—oh you think that’s a bad thing? Not at all. Ridley knows that words can hurt exponentially more than sticks and stones ever could. They can lift one up, crush one’s spirit, move one to tears and bring them round again with a hearty laugh. And that’s what happens over the course of the 90 minutes that are never less than riveting. It’s a journey that creates clear pictures in the mind’s eye with no need for props or visuals of any kind. Good thing, since there aren’t any.
Well, except for the “visuals” of the two actors who are strikingly hot. Laura C. Harris and Elan Zafir are extremely sexy on their own—now add the overt sexuality of their characters and the room gets a bit steamy at times. And yet….and yet, they never kiss (almost never, but no spoilers) though their lips come within millimeters of touching, the lady turns her head away at just the moment it’s about to happen. She’ll get the man all revved up, but there will be no nice kissing, nor will anyone say the words, “I love you.” It’s part tease, but also a “tell” that there has been a loss of something that once existed between this couple who, we learn, have a long history together.
Harris and Zafir are given Herculean acting tasks: Multiple, lengthy monologues that require high-wire levels of skill. These two are working without a net, and their bravery is admirable. I call them “monologues” because for long parts of the play, there isn’t much dialogue going on—it’s more like two amazing blues guitarists in a “cutting” contest. The conclusion of each ‘story’ leads, in a way, to the other person topping the other or changing the subject entirely. A duel between two well-spoken Cockneys.
Matthew Gardiner’s direction is a collection of great choices and unquestionable instinct. I assume he’s the one responsible for the tricky choreography, especially in the final quarter, but he didn’t list an additional credit for it.
Roger Ebert used to say that a sad movie is never depressing if it’s done well, because the viewer gets so much joy out of the great performances and storytelling that it ultimately trumps the subject matter. Those words echoed in my ears as I left the theatre. These are some troubled folks, for sure, but their sad story, while moving, is not what sticks to your ribs—no, what stays with you is the sheer happiness that a night of amazing theatre brings. Damn, this was good.
Tender Napalm continues at Signature Theatre through May 11th. Tickets and info at: http://www.signature-theatre.org/shows/tender-napalm