Jenny Contuzzi’s new play, Body Language strives to explore a relationship dynamic where one party is completely satisfied while the other craves something more. While her writing falls flat, the two leads provide the believable chemistry to keep the production bearable, and at times even gripping. The cast does such a superb job that Contuzzi’s one-dimensional writing can’t keep up; the Body Language is unconvincing and in need of stronger dialogue.
Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis
Jenny Contuzzi’s Body Language deals in stereotypes: Mary, a young, attractive woman works at a diner, takes night classes, has the love of her kindhearted, blue-collar boyfriend Mike, and yet also has a “dark secret” that keeps her from accepting his love. Mike is equally in love with Mary, and when they’re alone they giggle, cuddle and whisper flirtatiously. While Mike’s ready to make their relationship official, however, Mary has doubts. This would be her fully functional relationship: she’d be safe, without fear of pain or danger. The problem is that Mary likes getting hurt.
As Mary, Amy Miller Brennan does an impressive job with a limited role that only provides extremes, either someone unwilling to admit her secret desires or one so completely infatuated with her hunky construction worker boyfriend that she feels guilty about any deeper needs. The neat writing makes it hard to believe she hasn’t resolved this inner conflict already, Brennan’s Mary still comes across as real and relatable. Similarly, while Andrew Daly makes a dopey and naïve Mike (when he’s head-over-heels), he switches from lap dog to perceptive caregiver a little too easily. When he finds out Mary has been punching walls because she likes the pain and the bloody knuckles, he sets up professional boxing equipment in the garage and registers her for self-defense classes. Despite such a far-fetched rendering of two lovebirds so blind to each other’s core personalities, director Nathaniel Shaw still manages to pull stellar performances out of the cast. Daly’s rock-solid portrayal of Mike transcends the script; he doesn’t just catch Mary’s emotional curveballs, he adds action to Contuzzi’s listless writing. Together Miller and Daly take a one-dimensional play that neither reaches a conclusion nor allows for a cliffhanger ending, and transform it into a chronic, troubled character study about making relationships work despite common behavior like lying, deceit, and guilt.
As for Brennan, who plays a more complex character, she takes advantage of Mary’s deceptive, chameleon-like personality to keep the audience guessing which “side” of Mary they’ll see next. At one moment she stands completely still, only moving her eyes; the next, she sits forward in her seat, all smiles, ready to impress her next employer. When she shows up at an old acquaintance’s apartment looking for something she knows Mike can’t give her, she looks petrified, eager, and hungry all at the same time. The man waiting for her, Theo (Jeffrey Trunell), truly “dominates” Mary even before touching her, barking demands as soon as she enters and leering in close when doing so. The way he handles his tools in front of Mary leave little to the imagination, providing a sick yet memorable performance for such a small role. It’s technically sharp, too: Ryan Metzler’s lights support the play’s back-and-forth by switching at each dramatic bolt between jarring electric blues to soothing yellows, for a stimulating, alternating hot-and-cold effect.
As a modern female playwright, Contuzzi takes a very complex issue and brings it to light against the backdrop of suburban America (Mary buys Mike a grill for his birthday, Mike sets up a tent in the backyard the night he proposes to Mary). She also incorporates the many different layers behind self-abuse, both emotional and physical, such as the lengths some people with go for a cathartic release not provided by mainstream society. All the elements of a truly heavy piece of theater are here, but while it has the right bodies, it’s got the wrong language. If you always hurt the one you love, Body Language needs to take the kid gloves off so that we can feel the love through the pain. Right now, instead of understanding Mary’s deep-set agony, the audience just feels a little shaken up.
Body Language (60 minutes; no intermission)
Dorothy Streislin Theater at Abingdon Theatre Company (312 West 36th Street)
Tickets [www.ovationtix.com]: $18, students and seniors $15
Performances: Wednesday 7/29 @ 6:30pm; Sunday 8/2 @ 2pm