TWO SMALL BODIES
Blue Collar Theatre Company
at Cafe Voltaire
A playwright's talent is often best evidenced in the way he or she handles cliches. Most playwrights can create quirky characters, unusual language, plot twists. Even a novel idea is not beyond the reach of many. But when playwrights run smack up against those scenes we've all watched a million times--and they're certainly hard to avoid--only the good ones emerge with their integrity intact.
Using this criterion Neal Bell is an exceptionally talented playwright. His two-act psychosexual murder mystery, Two Small Bodies, is as cliched as they come. Eileen (Laurie Buck), a struggling cocktail waitress at a local strip club, wakes up one morning to find that her two young children are missing. Lieutenant Brann (Jim Rafalin), the hardened, predatorially sexual cop assigned to the case, quickly decides that the children are dead and that Eileen is the prime suspect. The play consists of quasi-interrogation scenes as Brann literally moves into Eileen's house and these two deeply wounded people slowly begin to unravel and intertwine.
It sounds deadly, and the script reads deadly. But director David Billotti seems to have a direct line tapped into Bell's highly theatrical imagination. Where I saw hackneyed images and well-worn scenarios, Billotti has discovered a powerful, moving human drama.
The key is Billotti's understanding of the subtle inner workings of the play. Yes, Two Small Bodies is built of movie-of-the-week situations, but Bell has ingeniously subverted the material by creating characters who are entirely aware of their own pulp-novel predicament. Within a few minutes of their first meeting, Eileen and Brann both become enmeshed--and know they're enmeshed--in the utterly banal fantasies each picks up from the other. Eileen knows that to Brann she's a trashy whore and negligent mother, so she tells him that she advised her kids "to play in traffic. I bought drugs without safety caps. I told them to carry scissors with the sharp end aimed at their throats." Brann becomes Eileen's ruthless tormentor, at once repulsed by and attracted to her sexuality: standing in the children's bedroom he tells her, "Sometimes at night I think about beating you with a belt. Here in this room. On one of those beds."
What makes the play so dramatic is that each character adopts a persona as a kind of survival technique. Eileen has to play the unfeeling, sexually depraved woman not only to prevent Brann from breaking her will but also to prevent herself from feeling the enormity of the loss she's suffered. Brann hardens himself in order to keep from violently lashing out at a world in which children are abducted and murdered. As the play progresses, both characters grow more and more desperate as they move further and further from their true selves.
Billotti and his intelligent cast approach Bell's script with utter restraint. There are very few emotional outbursts in this Blue Collar production despite scenes that seem to invite them; for the most part the staging is fairly still. Buck and Rafalin understand that their characters go to great lengths to appear perfectly composed for fear of losing the upper hand. In fact, their characters barely admit they're playing a deadly game. When Brann changes his clothes in front of Eileen, for example, he acts as though he's doing nothing out of the ordinary, though it's abundantly clear he hopes to seduce her. Eileen, denying her palpable attraction to him, tells him, "You look like a corpse."
The result is a production full of tension, little of which is ever released. Because the characters craftily mask their true intentions from each other, the evening becomes seductive and mysterious. This production demonstrates that actors and directors who understand a scene's fundamental dynamics need do very little overtly to communicate a great deal.
The production falters only in its more explosive moments, when the actors finally have to connect with the passions they've been holding back. In these moments, the actors seem strangely hesitant and uncomfortable, as if unwilling to give in to these emotions even when it's necessary. The production also sometimes becomes a bit mechanical: at times passions that are supposedly held in check seem not to be there at all. But given the utterly unforgiving cement-and-brick performance space at Cafe Voltaire and the ten-person audience on opening night, such lapses are understandable.
By directing his actors to play everything close to the vest, Billotti adds another intriguing level to this play--even moments that seem genuine are always suspect. As a result it's unclear whether Eileen and Brann are adopting personas. Perhaps they're truly the heartless, compassionless people they pretend to be, and the tragedy lies in their discovery of just how little humanity they have left inside.