I’d like to say that Philip Ridley’s new play Tender Napalm tells the story of two lovers trying to help each other recover from a traumatic event, possibly the death of their child, perhaps in a terrorist attack; but to say the play tells the story of anything is to ignore what the play suggests about words — that they’re more than telling tools. They can describe reality, yes, at least to some extent; but they can also relieve reality, and replace reality, and maybe restore reality.
What makes it possible for words to do that in this play is the sort of love that ruins everything, exquisitely.
This much we can say: Man and Woman, played by Elan Zafir and Laura C. Harris with the kind of fury that puts everything at stake at every moment, are stuck in a box, maybe ten feet by twenty feet, with low sides made of stacked boards or slabs of stone. It looks like a rink, or a pool. The surface is plexiglass over squares with blue lights in them. Sometimes the lights turn white or gold. I thought of an air-hockey table.
The box is the place where loving uncontrollably has left them, with nothing but their clothes and their bodies and words, to use as they will. They use them to utter desire and fear and anger and hope and regret all at once, because they can and they must.
They take turns. “I could squeeze a bullet between those lips,” he says. “Point first. Press it between those rosebud lips. Prise it between your pearly whites. Gently. I wouldn’t break a single tooth.”
When it’s her turn, she says she could plop out one of his eyeballs with a screw, but we understand that she doesn’t want to do what she says, that it’s a saying, not a meaning, the sort of thing that loving with reckless abandon might allow you to say, or condemn you to say, when you reach the place that you can get to only by loving that way, where you’ll be stranded.
He says that they’re stranded there. “Have you ever seen the sea so blue since we’ve been stranded here?” he asks. She doesn’t answer because he didn’t speak those words to find out whether she had ever seen the sea so blue.
We can say that something in their life exploded. “Did you hear the bomb that killed her?” Man asks Woman. Each of them talks about putting explosive devices into the other’s body, which I would take as evidence that neither of them built the bomb that blew up in their lives, and I don’t think love built it either, but love opened all their doors at once, allowing everything to enter them, including the kind of shrapnel that doesn’t injure people who can close their doors.
We can infer that they were wounded by that explosion, and that they can’t go back to whatever may be left of their exploded lives until they heal, and that they’re trying to heal themselves by touching and dancing and talking. Each of them spins out a violent tale of deliverance which bears little relation to lives that people really live, using language that’s comprehensible but not coherent, meaning that it isn’t trying to say something, but rather trying to release what can’t be said.
The tales they tell have an obliging power: if she says she found him sleeping in a pool of piss and vomit, he has to get out of that pool. If he says a tsunami washed her out to sea, she has to survive in the water. And if she gets in too deep, he has to remind her that she made herself Poseidon’s daughter, so it isn’t possible for her to drown — or else she will.
Closes May 11, 2014
4200 Campbell Avenue
1 hour, 30 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $39 – $86
Tuesdays thru Sundays
“We’re here to approach the intolerable,” they might explain if we asked why, “to get as close to it as we can, to go past the point of no return, and then pull each other back and go again. You can’t do that with words that have to be attached to literal reality.”
At the end of the play, the characters seem to return to literal reality: they re-enact the day they met, in conventional realistic terms. And you wonder if this return to realism is what will finally deliver them from the place where reckless love has left them stranded. And maybe it will someday. Deliver them or banish them. They might prefer to stay.
“My love,” woman says at the end. And Man answers, “My love.”
Tender Napalm by Philip Ridley. Directed by Matthew Gardiner. Featuring Laura C. Harris and Elan Zafir. Scenic design by Luciana Stecconi. Lighting Design by Colin K. Bills. Produced by Signature Theatre. Reviewed by Mark Dewey.
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