Theater Review: “Pas de Deux” @ The Studio

Pas de Deux combines two one-act plays, one from New Zealand and the other from Canada, and they complement each other well. Gary Henderson’s Skin Tight and Daniel MacIvor’s 2-2 Tango are more physical than most plays, and they focus on the complexities of relationships. Both plays veer quickly from the highs to the lows of romance, and there is something universal about the way the playwrights deconstruct our notion of love. It’s inevitable that one play is better than another, yet they’re both striking and funny.

Skin Tight begins boldly. With a jarring punk rock soundtrack, Elizabeth (Emily Townley) and Tom (Jens Rasmussen) run headlong for each other and begin fighting. They both toss around on stage, but once the music cuts out, they start to reflect on their marriage. Stuck between youth and middle age, they’re wistful while still nursing deep wounds. In a long monologue, Elizabeth talks about World War 2, and its effect on the women who stayed behind: she resents Tom’s service because it changed him, though she recognizes how it was necessary. The pair grasps for closure, and finds it only after they acknowledge how easily love can become hate.

While 2-2 Tango is another play about relationship, its setting could not be more different from Skin Tight. Instead of mid-century New Zealand, we have a modern party where Jim (Jon Hudson Odom) and James (Alex Mills) spot each other. They try to ignore their attraction – the dialogue offers a running narration of their thought process – but they’re too turned on. At first, their concerns are relatively trivial: in hilariously parallel dialogue, both men explain how they don’t to be the one to host a one night stand. But as Jim and James get to know each other, the problems get thornier, and they have a shared fantasy of how everything will go wrong.

Whereas Skin Tight relies on chemistry, 2-2 Tango is more like two concurrent one man shows. Townley and Rasmussen are a strong pair, although they’re a little weathered. Under the direction of Johanna Gruenhut, they combine intimacy with raw anger. A knife is an important part of the play: there’s a prolonged scene where Townley holds one in her mouth, and another where Rasmussen uses it to project sexiness. All this passion exists in a sort of vacuum: there’s an ethereal to timelessness to Henderson’s setting, and while it’s fruitful way to explore their relationship, he cannot quite stick the ending. Many modern plays run out of steam and resort to nudity, and that happens again here. There’s no need to see the actors without clothes – we already understand what Tom and Elizabeth mean to each other – so it only works as a theatrical stunt.

Jim and James may take off their clothes, but they go the whole way (MacIvor does not see the need for it). Instead, he chips away at dialogue to its rhetorical essentials. Mills and Odom spend a lot of time dancing, and 2-2 Tango forces them to create their own soundtrack. They repeat simple phrases until they become a rhythm, and the stylish dialogue has an infectious cadence. The nervy decisions behind a stripped-down affair is admirable; the actors and director Eric Ruffin find an athletic, funny alternative to the typical neuroses of a new relationship. 2-2 Tango does not have the emotional impact that Skin Tight does, but it leaves a longer-lasting impression by hitting its easier notes with perfect clarity.

While both playwrights focus on a relationship, their respective plays include a third performer. The third actors mirror each other: an old man appears in Skin Tight, while a little boy peppers the action in2-2 Tango. They’re meant as focal points. We watch as the old man reflects on his past, and as the young boy looks to what might be his future. They reminds us how the principle characters in these plays are more like vessels of nostalgia: through their back and forth, even the messiest romances still have a way of helping us forget the ugly parts.