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Tender Napalm, an opaque, spectacularly vulgar twohander from the uber-prolific British playwright/
For 90 claustrophobic, intermissionless minutes, Woman and Man—names seem to be passe on Washington stages just now, but the game, athletic creatures in these archetypal roles go by Laura C. Harris and Elan Zafir the rest of the time—circle one another on an unfurnished, in-the-round stage that features a translucent dance floor but feels more like an arena. (Luciana Stecconi designed the minimalistic set.) They take turns delineating in hyperbolic, then clinical, detail how they intend to express their mutual desire, love, and loathing, in variable order of significance. It’s a tête-à-tête offensive.
“Do grenades have tips?” Woman asks, interrupting one of Man’s lengthy, unwisely specific campaign promises involving small arms and orifices for a fact-check. (A: Yes, some of them, sort of.) Lubrication is negotiated. Weirdly, the line that gets the biggest laugh in the early going is about how Woman left her “deep-cleanse cucumber mask” on for longer than directed—the piece’s sole joke that could be seamlessly sewn into a sitcom. Later, she spends several minutes prescribing the exact modus operandi she’ll employ to sever Man’s penis and scrotum.
What becomes apparent is that we’re in some shared-psychic-trauma purgatory of which Man and Woman are the sole occupants. Something has made reality as articulated in ordinary speech too painful to bear, so they communicate in outrageous sexual threats and childish make-believe riddles. They report to one another their visits to a tsunami-ravaged beach and fight for the allegiance of the local monkey population. Like two children continually amending the rules of their game on the fly, Man and Woman each try to wrest control of their shared narrative. He tries to regale with her with his self-aggrandizing account of slaying a dragon—who turns out to be a blood relative of hers, maybe, somehow?—and feasting on its flesh, while she accuses him of disappearing for five days with a case of beer and whiskey that washed up on the shore. He retorts with a claim of abduction by a peaceful alien race that required his aid when threatened by a warlike one. And so on.
What happened to bring them here, and where here is, are mysteries for the audience to decode. (As in Blade Runner, one of the big hints to what’s really going on involves a unicorn.) Even if you’re insufficiently intrigued to take part in the puzzle-solving, there’s pleasure to be had from the musicality of the fanciful words they spit and seethe at one another, the actors’ innate athleticism, and the beat-by-beat emotional minutiae that flickers across their faces. Though the novelty of Ridley’s orotund language cooks off before he gets around to giving this codependent pair a standard meet-cute courtship scene to play, Harris and Zafir remain committed and engaging. Both affect accents indigenous to East London, where Ridley is from. Apparently it’s important to somebody that these refugees in neverwhere are British.
I’ll confess I’ve never seen or read any of Ridley’s other plays, and indeed it’s been nearly two decades since one of them was staged locally. (Woolly Mammoth did The Pitchfork Disney in 1995.) The titles of his stage oeuvre are the stuff of which parodies are made: The four plays bookending Tender Napalm on his crowded resume are Leaves of Glass, Piranha Heights, Shivered, and Dark Vanilla Jungle. Those are even funnier than the titles attributed to depressive playwright Margot Tenenbaum in The Royal Tenenbaums; I can’t type them without giggling. So it’s possible I’m just too knee-jerk-resistant to Ridley’s mode of overheated titillation for Tender Napalm’s buried payload of grief to register with me.
Aside from its debt to Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, which traces a love affair in reverse, and David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole, which expresses grief in cosmic dimensions, the show strongly recalls Lungs, a world premiere from Duncan Macmillan that opened at Studio Theatre a few months after Tender Napalm first appeared in 2011. Lungs and Tender Napalm both concern an intimate world inhabited by one man and one woman, who share a completely bare stage for about an hour-and-a-half. Lungs compressed years in the couple’s life into that space, sometimes vaulting ahead by months in the pause between two lines. Tender Napalm, by contrast, finds its lovers trapped in a nightmarish present. One can admire the artistry with which their prison house has been constructed, and the craft of the performances within it, while still, eventually, wanting very much for Woman and Man to move on.