The room is cold, and vapors swirl around the ducts that bring in air — has it been chilled? It smells like what came out of the defroster on my way into the city. Risers on three sides, a platform in the middle covered with Astroturf, an old bathtub on a corner of the platform, buckets hanging from the rafters. Not a space that helps you understand what’s going to happen.
A man and a woman run into the room from opposite sides, collide or embrace, grapple each other onto the platform, struggle, wrestle, rub for a couple of minutes. They knock each other down. They grunt, they kiss, they roll. The woman’s bigger than the man. She gets up, fills her mouth at one of the hanging buckets, spits the water back like a boxer who doesn’t want to carry liquid through the next round, then she goes at him again. Wide face, pretty, flushed, and wet.
More kissing and rubbing than shoving this time. She splashes herself at the bathtub, fishes out a peach, throws her man an apple, eats. In a minute he crosses the knoll and licks the nectar off her face. No one has spoken. What’s there to say?
Love knocks down lucky man and woman; then they devour each other.
That’s the opening sequence in a one-act play called Skin Tight, by a New Zealander named Gary Henderson. It’s the first half of a program The Studio Theatere is offering to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Studio 2nd Stage, which is “defined by its commitment to taking risks, developing new artists, and producing sexy, daring, and audacious work,” according to the press packet.
I would add the word ‘dangerous.’ At one point she licks his knife as if it were his member. He holds the handle and she takes the blade into her mouth and he moves it in and out, way in, like past her tonsils, then he pushes her around the platform by the handle of the knife. They wrestle with the blade still in her mouth — a real blade: we just saw him cut an apple with it. Then she knocks him down and straddles him and stabs him with the knife. When he screams she tells him to be quiet. “It’s just a flesh wound,” she says. Not like those wounds that go beyond the flesh.
He and she are Jens Rasmussen and Emily Townley. At first their characters appear to be generic love-fighters, incorporations of the love-sex-danger nexus that envelops men and women who surrender to each other. But then we learn their names — Elizabeth and Tom — and we realize that they’re specific people who know each other’s details well enough to treat the buckets hanging from the rafters and the bathtub on the little hill as ordinary features of the inner landscape which their long love and their hunger for each other have configured, like bulldozers might.
The details of their life emerge in gorgeous language, which means that the sounds and shapes and rhythms of the phrases catch your ear and make you want to hear the lines again, as if they were songs on the radio, and that you want to touch or smell or be what’s on the other side of every word. The bathtub and the hanging buckets may be the genius of Set Designer JD Madsen, and the dangerous edge to the erotic wrestling may be the work of Director Johanna Gruenhut, but the language is all Gary Henderson. It makes you wish you’d learned your English in New Zealand.
Elizabeth sits on the edge of the tub and shaves her husband while they talk about the first time they made love. He was afraid he wouldn’t be able to find his way in; she was afraid he wouldn’t fit. Neither of them liked it. He is leaning back between her legs as she cuts the lather off his neck with that knife. Afterwards she wipes him with her dress.
She stretches out on the knoll and remembers the boys who leaned out of the windows of the train that took them off to war, three boys to a window, boney wrists sticking out of the sleeves of their tunics, the arms of men on little boys. They talk about his family’s farm, good wide sunlit country where a man can free his ghosts.
“Will you wash my body when I’m dead?” she asks him. “Not me — I won’t be there — but my body. I don’t want an undertaker’s fingers on my body — or his eyes. What if I’ve soiled my pants? I don’t want someone else to see that dirt.”
Makes ‘I love you’ sound about as intimate as ‘What’s your name?’
The story of those people who have loved away the possibility of self-protection is paired with a piece that makes light of our efforts to protect ourselves. 2-2 Tango, by Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor, is more choreography (by Nancy Bannon) than narrative. Its two characters, James and Jim, literally dance around each other for half an hour. They use words to keep each other at arm’s length, or to approach each other by degrees. Alex Mills and Jon Hudson Odom are beautiful men in beautiful clothes, some of which they take off so we get to see their bodies, which are fine.
They have funny quirks and phobias that serve as obstacles to getting what they want from one another, but they struggle humorously toward the goal of getting laid, and they succeed, I think — one of them insists on turning out the lights so we don’t see what happens, but they both shout, “Jimmy! Jim! Oh, Jim!” in tones that ring with distinctive achievement. They are, in fact, generic characters: anyone could make those sounds, except the people in the other play.
This is The Studio Theatre’s second run at 2-2 Tango, and one can’t help supposing that when it was on this stage before, in 1992, it packed a wilder, riskier punch than it does now, when the gender of the lovers doesn’t make for drama anymore.
Taken together, these two plays show how far we’ve come in understanding love since 1992, and how little we understand it at all.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with one intermission.
Pas de Deux (Skin Tight and 2-2 Tango) plays through May 19, 2013 at The Studio Theatre – 1501 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.