Jim Thalman and Francesca Nina O'Keefein Necropolis(Photo courtesy of JLS Productions)
Jim Thalman and Francesca Nina O'Keefe
in Necropolis
(Photo courtesy of JLS Productions)
It's often astonishing how current headlines color a play, make it seem all the more vital and cogent -- perhaps even lend an importance not intrinsic to the work. Don Nigro's Necropolis spotlights Anna, a self-appointed sniper in what the program identifies as "a war-torn city," who repeatedly criticizes America. This particular week, the unceasing denigrations make her sound like a spokesperson for the world's attitude toward United States in the wake of the Iraq prisoner-abuse scandal. She puts you in mind of the sign that used to sit above fun-house mirrors, declaring, "See yourself as others see you."

Actually, solo guerilla Anna (Francesca Nina O'Keefe) seems to be acting on her own behalf as well as on the behalf of innocents whom she believes are unable to protect themselves in an eastern European country that might be Bosnia. She could be picking off what she considers enemy fighters from windows overlooking fear-ridden Kosovo streets. However, Nigro's play runs its agitated course in the dingy hotel room where Anna takes a break from her sinister appointments with an American journalist named Post (Jim Thalman).

It's more than a break she's taking, though, since the odd couple enters Paula Garron Lopez's claustrophobic set, with its bed and few sticks of furniture and forlorn Modigliani print, while grabbing at each other in sexual heat. They shuck their clothes within seconds of Joe Morrissey's lights going up. Well, they shuck most of the clothes -- the night I was in the audience, Thalman went to pull down O'Keefe's fatigue trousers and accidentally grabbed her underwear at the same time, causing her instantly to snap them back up. Her modesty had the effect of introducing a moment of decorum into the proceedings just when the script didn't call for it. O'Keefe's reflexive gesture undermined later lines when Anna is supposed to locate the shed panties. Oh, well.

Anyway, Anna and Post get on with getting it on, and once that's accomplished, they slip into their clothes and into the play proper, which follows the attempt two strangers with opposing political views make to learn who one another is. Post, divorced and the father of two girls he rarely sees, seems to be a pleasant guy with some not-so-pleasant experiences under his web belt from other countries where he's gone to file war stories. He wants to know how Anna justifies her self-imposed assignments. "Do you like being God," he asks her at one fired-up point. "Yes," she replies and explains herself not necessarily to his satisfaction.

During their volatile encounter, which has the feel of two existential protagonists clashing, they toy with the idea of having more sex but also bandy about the notion of marrying in order for Post to take Anna away from all this, as the old phrase goes. As they empty a whiskey bottle they've brought with them, they argue -- she throws her drink and his at him during one riled exchange -- and then repeatedly seem to be on the verge of a rapprochement. Indeed, the question of whether they ever will or can overcome their differences serves as the play's suspense. When Anna finally puts a gun on Post (she doesn't appear to have a rifle with her), the prospects for alliance seem slim. But even then it isn't clear the situation is completely hopeless. "I shoot the enemy," Anna remarks to Post, who replies, "Who's the enemy?" The existential question is, needless to say, Nigro's point.

Two-handers of this stripe often seem to be disguised debates. They can also be metaphors. Necropolis is both debate and metaphor. Anna and Post represent the weary European and the naïve American. Post's being a war correspondent and not a soldier establishes him as an observer and therefore effectively ineffectual. "We're both watchers," he says to Anna, and it's true. She's watching in abandoned rooms from which she's carefully planned her quick escape. But she's watching and then acting, rightly or wrongly. Disagreement between Post and Anna stands for ideological blind spots on both sides -- unsophisticated but earnest America and resentful, near-defeated old Europe. They're never likely to see eye to eye, which in the long term is what may turn both their worlds into one global necropolis. The pessimistic possibility is valid as far as it goes, and all more believable for director John DiFusco keeping the stage alive with movement and real conflict.

Francesca Nina O'Keefe and Jim Thalmanin Necropolis(Photo courtesy of JLS Productions)
Francesca Nina O'Keefe and Jim Thalman
in Necropolis
(Photo courtesy of JLS Productions)
Missing from the play, however, is a sense of who Anna and Post are. His being divorced and an absent father doesn't say enough about why he does what he does for a living or even how long he's done it. The little background Nigro fills in on Post, though, is more than is supplied about Anna. She has a few things to say about herself, but it's not enough to take the edge fully off the political debate quality of the play. The more real Post and Anna are, the more complicated they are as people would mean the less they appear to be simply metaphor, opponents in a veiled foreign-policy colloquium. Nigro, whose intriguing Cincinnati was on view earlier this season, tells enough about them to suggest that even though sound designer David B. Marling keeps guns shots reverberating outside the seemingly windowless room, the couple needn't return to their tasks quite so hurriedly. It's Anna, as a matter of fact, who chooses to leave. They could remain in each other's presence for longer than a brief encounter and remove even more guarded personality layers in the earlier way they so shamelessly removed their clothes.

Certainly, actors Francesca Nina O'Keefe and Jim Thalman give evidence that their resources aren't in danger of being stretched to the limit. Both of them are absolutely natural in their roles. They're comfortable being uneasy with one another. Thalman has a chunky masculinity that serves him well, and O'Keefe -- whose face has the thin, exotic beauty of the kind fashion editors make a fuss over -- is changeable as a mood ring. Nigro's script calls on them to be something like hamsters sharing a cage, and they have the nervy wherewithal.

There's a sequence in the play when Anna talks about an individual's good deeds being white pebbles and an individual's bad deeds being black pebbles. She refers to the final judgment of a person's life depending on how one stack weighs against the other. She wonders, she says, about her killings and whether in the significant accounting they're registered as white pebble or black pebbles. It's one of Nigro's best speeches. Right now Necropolis, which is partly about things never being black and white, is a light-grey pebble.