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I’m no sweet-talk expert, but I’m pretty sure that telling a woman you want to push a bullet into her mouth and a hand grenade up her hoo-ha is not the direct path to sexy-time. Then again, not every couple is like archetypal Man (Blake Ellis) and Woman (Amelia Workman) in Philip Ridley’s mythopoetic two-hander on erotic themes. Tender Napalm is a bravura piece of theater writing, tracing the treacherous psychic landscapes of lovers who may be survivors of a deadly tsunami, or just bruised souls immersed in an extended game of make-pretend. In Paul Takacs’s American premiere (the piece debuted in England last year), the actors join in an emotionally brutal dance through gender wars, shape-shifting fantasy, science fiction and disaster movies.
Given Ridley’s sensuous, muscular language and the abstract presentation (street clothes, no set, minimal lights), the performers unfortunately sometimes lapse into vocal overcompensation. The extremely intimate 59E59’s Theater C (the action takes place in a narrow transverse between sections of the audience) becomes a claustrophobic echo chamber for Ridley’s vertiginous riffs on sex and violation (a gory, epic slaying of a serpent segues casually into a graphically described castration). Carried away by their combustible text, the actors tend to shout. All the same, Workman’s precise, radiant appeal and Ellis’s earnest, raw-hearted charisma mitigate such straining.
The piece, at base, dwells on the violence implicit in love. Through cascades of metaphor and interwoven narrative strands, Ridley teases out the danger of losing oneself in carnality. He doesn’t preach, but he also doesn’t sentimentalize. Still, for all its trauma and spurts of aggression, Tender Napalm might be ideal for an artsy couple’s night out.—David Cote
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote