Amelia Workman and Blake Ellis
in Tender Napalm
(© Carol Rosegg)
Amelia Workman and Blake Ellis
in Tender Napalm
(© Carol Rosegg)
As its title would suggest, Tender Napalm at 59E59 Theaters abounds with contradictions.

Playwright Philip Ridley fills his 90-minute work with the densely packed wordplay of a couple that can't simply say "I love you". Instead, Man (Blake Ellis) and Woman (Amelia Workman) navigate their relationship through fantasies they dream up that pit one against the other in battle-to-the-death-situations. The result, under the direction of Paul Takacs, is a compelling, sometimes disturbing story.

As the lights go up, Man enters the alley-like stage as a boxer, bouncing from side-to-side and punching the air. His opponent, Woman, follows close behind with some moves of her own. A couple lines are exchanged before Man launches into the first of many monologues that walk a tense line between poetic and sadistic.

"I could squeeze a bullet between those lips," he tells her in a menacingly sweet tone. "Your mouth would relax. You would accept this bullet in your palette." She responds with, "I could get a spoon and prise it into your eye sockets."'

As the couple takes us from one scenario to the next, it feels like an improv bit with both actors accepting the cardinal rule to say "yes", however there aren't many laughs as they slip further into the nether reaches of their imaginations. He's eaten by a serpent, but escapes by stabbing it in the heart. She becomes a serpent with long tentacles and chases after him.

Both also launch grenades at each other, encounter unicorns, and have the opportunity to save each other. Each is made vulnerable by the other in exquisitely detailed scenes that meld destruction and bliss to the extent that it's hard to distinguish them.

Ellis and Workman give charged performances, but ultimately there's too much antagonism to believe this Man and Woman love each other until the last quarter of the play when we rewind and see the first moment when they meet. All of the structural underpinnings for their relationship are present, and it's fun to see where it all began.

There's a lot to admire in Ridley's writing and the way he subverts the boy-meets-girl genre, but there's also still a lot to be desired. Many of the monologues stretch on too long to hold one's attention and do not mine the psychological depths needed for these characters to come fully to life. Still, it's a hell of a glimpse into modern relationships.