Tina Benko and Elias Koteas in Dark Yellow
(Photo © George McLaughlin)
Tina Benko and Elias Koteas in Dark Yellow
(Photo © George McLaughlin)
A savvy theatergoer who walks into the middle of Julia Jordan's new play Dark Yellow could easily be forgiven for thinking he's accidentally wandered into a production of Terrence McNally's Frankie & Johnny in the Clair de Lune. For there they are: the tough-but-tender woman (Tina Benko), pushing and pulling back during moments of intimacy with the ugly-sexy, tough-but-sorta-tender guy (Elias Koteas), who keeps trying to convince her she's beautiful while she protests his flattery.

Well, a couple of details are different. She's not a big city waitress, but a bartender in a farm-town dive. And he's not a short-order cook. In fact, earlier that evening -- in a boldly staged scene by director Nick Sandow -- he has murdered a nine-year-old boy who has witnessed the robbery/murder the man has unhappily participated in. And this is no casual one-night-stand; the woman is -- or so he believes -- the murdered boy's mother.

For most of this 90-minute two-hander (save for the brief appearance of the boy, played by second-grader Max Kaplan), the air lingers heavy with questions: Is she (whose name appears to be Jenny) really childless as she keeps claiming? Will the man (who eventually gives his name as Bob) eventually tell the woman the truth about what happened earlier that night? Will he kill her? Will she kill him? Will they actually consummate sex? And, most important, will anyone in the audience actually care what happens to these two damaged if not particuarly sympathetic souls?

In her brief but prolific career, Jordan -- whose previous works include St. Scarlet, Boy, and Tatjana in Color -- has shown a taste for less-than-likeable characters and a real gift for poetic, vivid language. Both are in evidence here, but not to the best effect. For example, both characters speak with the kind of vocabulary and lyricism more common to New York City playwrights than Midwesterners, no matter how much time they've admitted to spending with a dictionary.

Moreover, the gorgeous candy-box Studio Theatre proves to be a less-than-felicitous choice for the work. Not only is there an uncomfortable dissonance between the grittiness of the work and the beauty of its setting, but the small playing space proves to be a problem for designer Victoria Imperioli, who must condense too much of a house into so few square feet. Pivotal moments take place in the onstage bed, which is barely visible to parts of the audience.

At its best, however, Dark Yellow succeeds as a first-rate acting exercise. Benko, who has excelled in past seasons as a brittle New Yorker in Disconnect and an aristocrat in The False Servant, brings a strong emotional commitment to this very different sort of woman, and she has some truly heartrending moments as she comes to terms with the emptiness of her life. However, in attempting a Midwestern accent, her voice often develops an odd cadence that makes her sound Kathleen Turner's first cousin.

For his part, Koteas has been down this road before -- most recently in the Signature Theater Company's Hot n' Throbbing -- but his offbeat magnetism suits the role to a T. More surprisingly, you end up caring more about a child-killer than you thought possible thanks to the actor's sensitive performance.

Dark Yellow is a colorful but muddy attempt to tackle an unusual subject. However, Jordan has better plays (and better titles) in her than this one.