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Theater Review: “Tender Napalm” at Signature Theatre

Odd and occasionally disturbing threads of stories between a man and a woman make up this abstract but fascinating work.

Laura C. Harris and Elan Zafir in Tender Napalm at Signature Theatre. Photograph by Teresa Wood.

At times, Signature Theatre’s Tender Napalm can feel more like a piece of poetry than a play. Two largely unidentified lovers (Laura C. Harris and Elan Zafir) trade fantastical narratives with each other on a bare platform set. Sometimes the tales are nonsensical, if oddly beautiful: a man is abducted by aliens who urge him to become a mercenary killer of sorts of another entire, savage race. At other times, things get undeniably graphic and disturbing: the woman explains to the man in explicit terms how she will cut off his member when he returns from a night of debauchery.

It’s an edgy play, and it requires its audience to be willing to going along with more than just some disconcerting language (another sexually laced tale describes the man inserting a grenade someplace where the sun don’t shine). The work is very abstract and generally puzzling, familiar territory for its experimental playwright, Philip Ridley. Few threads tie the lovers’ competitive and grandiose stories together, beyond their general explicitness and hints toward an island setting, the destructive nature of a recent tsunami and the death of a child. Talk of mango-armed monkeys turns into epic battle scenes between man and sea monster.

It’s all quite strange. Run with it, though, and there’s a fascinating, voyeuristic quality to taking in Tender Napalm. There’s an intense charge between Harris and Zafir, whose interactions can alternately feel like sparring, foreplay, a grand inside joke, and a sadistic mind game. Director Matthew Gardiner does not give the audience anything to distract them from the couple: there are no set pieces, no accompanying score, no detailed costumes or tertiary characters to observe. The man and woman are each other’s entire world, and they must rely on each other when pushed to the very brink, even when one of them is doing the pushing.

Aspects of Tender Napalm start to come into clearer focus as the 90-minute play begins to wrap up. One scene is set more concretely in the “real world:” a man and woman find each other in a crowded party being thrown in an impressive mansion and begin to connect with each other. Little clues from the scene show how certain words and story elements may have found their way into each person’s subconscious. The scene doesn’t serve as an explanation, per se, for the larger-than-life stories that have just played out, but it does help ground the show a little further in reality.

Tender Napalm is at Signature Theatre through May 11. Running time is about 90 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($40 to $97) are available through Signature’s website.