Laura C. Harris and Elan Zafir as "Woman" and "Man" in Tender Napalm, directed by Matthew Gardiner, at Virginia's Signature Theatre.
Laura C. Harris and Elan Zafir as "Woman" and "Man" in Tender Napalm, directed by Matthew Gardiner, at Virginia's Signature Theatre.
(© Teresa Wood)

It's pitch-dark in Signature's intimate ARK Theatre when suddenly the light shines on two figures — aptly referred to as "Man" and "Woman" — sizing each other up like two combatants in a boxing match. The man speaks first, waxing poetic as he describes the woman's mouth, conjuring up language that would make Henry Miller blush. The woman follows with her own erotic fantasies: The heat between the two is palpable.

This passion-filled dialogue, combined with sharp metaphors, heated exchanges, and uncomfortable silences, fills out British playwright Philip Ridley's two-person play Tender Napalm. Ridley manages to create a world where unicorns, flying monkeys, and a serpent all have a role in the somewhat fantastical relationship between the Man and Woman.

The plot is tough to decipher as the couple create their own land of confusion, telling stories that seem to provide an escape from reality. Are they on a desert island? Did a tsunami do damage to their home? Are they the only two humans left in the universe? These questions arise as you watch, making you unsure about what is really going on between these two people and under what circumstances the story is unfolding.

Director Matthew Gardiner seems to rely mostly on the chemistry between actors Laura C. Harris and Ian Zafir to draw the audience into the play's world. Luckily the two are more than up for the job. You can understand the attraction that brings the Man and Woman together, and their passion for each other is projected with every seething look and come-hither invitation. The pair's emotions ebb and flow, changing from love to hate at the drop of a hat. Harris, in particular, transforms with ease. It's obvious that they love each other, but equally obvious is that a tragic event has changed the course of their lives.

With a sparse set, consisting merely of a rectangular floor, Gardiner, Signature's associate artistic director, has the actors use every inch of the space. Eliciting great physicality from the script, he has choreographed very intense movements throughout, with Harris and Zafir putting as much of their bodies into the fight as their words.

Those words are at times very harsh — in their expressions of both love and hate, as Man and Woman attempt to control the story they have created. It's an intense, 90-minute emotional roller coaster of a production, in which raw emotion takes over. Although it aims to deliver an emotional punch, Tender Napalm goes a little too far with its mysterious alt-universe, and it feels a bit contrived by the time the final scene explores where the imagery may have come from. By then, you're left wondering what truly went on and how the tragedy they hint at shaped their characters. Though it never delivers that knockout punch you expect at the beginning, Tender Napalm does grapple with plenty of thoughts about love and passion, making it a fight worth watching.