Can a single 100-minute play raise a city’s terror-alert rating? Sensors somewhere must have twitched at the threats uttered during Philip Ridley’s erotic, menacing, affecting, and occasionally silly two-hander Tender Napalm at 59E59 Theaters. “I could squeeze a bullet between those lips,” a man (Blake Ellis) tells his paramour (Amelia Workman). “I could get a spoon and prise it in your eye sockets,” she coos in return. Foreplay continues with the prospect of grenades and garden shears applied to the genitals. Surely this calls for a code orange.
Ridley asserts a deliciously idiosyncratic voice among contemporary U.K. playwrights, and Tender Napalm is as baroque as anything he has written, though more plotless than most, which can become trying. The reason for these language games does emerge, but gradually, elliptically, and quite late in the play. A tragedy has plunged these young East Londoners into an imaginary world where they can tell each other elaborate stories to escape, to seduce, to punish.
The actors, directed by Paul Takacs, work with enviable energy, but the flamboyance of the language and the savagery of the imagery (too often physicalized in this production) teeters between the magnificent and the ludicrous. You might be much moved to think of theatrical masters (Strindberg, Albee)—or merely of more blatant examples of what the Brits call “in-yer-face” theater. (It has obvious parallels with Anthony Nielsen’s Stitching, for example.)
However sublime or ridiculous, all the sex and peril and lyricism didn’t make much of an impact on the faces glimpsed at 59E59’s teensy Theater C. At least one woman and one man slept throughout the performance, and several elderly members of the audience turned their heads away in apparent distaste. In yer face? Not in theirs.